A gentleman is defined, not by the distance he keeps from his own, internal wildness, but by his ability to scrub up afterwards.
Iconic (Photo: RWH)
Having left all chance of contact with the outside, Dan and Alki dropped off the edge of our map and headed to the border of the Congo. Here are some of the stories that eventually filtered back…
Many years later, as he faced the interview panel, Dr Daniel Nuth would recall that distant evening when he and Alkisti were taken to speak with spirits. They had travelled for several days, beyond the large roads and up into volcanoes, asleep in the clouds. These rolling rainmakers lay stacked in a ridge, under a blanket of jungle, climbing to snow. They held back a great spreading unknown; an immense, roadless, lawless canopy. Only rumours came back across the border, where endless river basins absorbed hidden villages, rival armies and fire capped mountains.
The people of the Rwenzori Mountains had an easy relationship with the overgrown slopes. Houses and farms were woven amongst the trees and any surprise intruder would be innocent to the scrutiny given them from the safety of the bush. The memory of the rebel raiding parties, wanton and brutal, lingered heavily.
They chanced upon a village school. A heavy set teacher, sweating into his shirt stood square to his blackboard. He struck out at a chalked word as he barked it.
“NNNIECE, NNIECE, NIECE”
The packed classroom of seven-year-olds fixed their determined eyes on the word and repeated with the staccato severity of a military drill.
“NNNIECE, NNIECE, NIECE.”
Without pause the teacher moved on.
“NNNEPHEW, NNEPHEW, NEPHEW”
At the end of the lesson they were welcomed in. The children shuffled away uneasily as they sat among them.
“Hello,” Alki hazarded
She remembered the importance of personal inquiries in Ugandan greetings.
“How are you?”
“WE ARE FINE!” came the kneejerk response. All children in the area were well trained in this exchange from the age of five.
The adjectives of the day were ‘sad’ and ‘shabby’.
Failing to find passage into the mystery beyond, Dan and Alki tracked south into Rwanda. Expecting to find a country reeling from its tortured past, they instead found a cosy utopia. Crisp, new roads crested over the wooded hills; uniformed police officers, bins, busses and traffic rules tidied the landscape. Among other acts of benevolence from the outside world, Irish cows were being airlifted in for their superior milk.
In the western mountains they made their way on foot through the thick rainforest. They joined a party on a trek destined for a bottomless crater lake. Exhausted at the humid summit they sought to wash themselves in the silver water. A terrified guide flung himself into their path, pleading for them to stop. They saw the fear in his eyes and hesitated. Why was the lake out of bounds?
“Nobody ever swims in the lake,” he warned “As we do not know how deep it is.”
He told them of the still, dark water that ran through the rock to the very heart of the earth. He told them about the magnets and about the Ox, which had jumped into the steep sides and had sunk without a trace.
“Can Oxen swim?” enquired Dan curiously.
An ominous glare sufficed for an answer.
They continued west through the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest; named from the scholarly belief that when the young earth froze, this was the only rainforest to keep the ice at bay. Finally they arrived at a wide river, where Rwanda ended and the Congo began.
A small town had grown up along the banks. A wooden bridge spanned the calm waters. They left Rwanda and crossed the frontier to try their luck. All the trucks were coming from the Congo, creaking over the mossy planks. They were laden with people.
A week ago the leader of M83, one of the larger rebel armies in eastern Congo, had turned himself in – voluntarily. Few were to greet the warlord’s resignation with optimism however. Something had driven him from his power base. These shifts in power usually spelled turbulent times ahead. Sure enough, the trucks brought news of renewed fighting.
They sat in the Spartan immigration office as the hours ticked by and it began to rain. Hurricane lamps were lit and the officials remained silent. The AK-47 is a sleek and arrogant tool that has spread to every corner of Africa and dan was familiar with their snarling barrels. However, they are usually slung lazy and unused, on the loose strap of a security guard of or policeman; their dormant barrels long since fired. These weapons seemed as veteran as their humourless owners; kept tight on the strap or brandished in ready hands. Eventually they were turned away and instructed to wait for approval from the immigration office in Kinshasa. They crossed back over the bridge in the dark. It was here they met the spirits at work.
A rhythmic chanting pounded the air and through a gap in the plank fence, plumes of white mist unfolded. A single spotlight dimly illuminated the scene. Kasava flour; mountains of it were piled up in the courtyard. Animated figures moved in and out of the cloud like pistons, wiry and bone white. As they moved closer they could see the porcelain faces. Cracks followed the lines of exertion around their dark, stony eyes. The flour golems moved in unison, shovelling their loads into sacks, held open by steady hands. Along the top of the heap of kasava roots, silhouettes climbed; sorting and pounding the edible roots.
Dan knelt down to take a photograph. A misfired flash broke the spell; stopped the scene dead. The sacks were dropped and everything was engulfed in clouds. Three faces emerged ahead and fixed the pair in their gaze.
“You do not take our pictures.” A voice announced with deep, flattened vowels.
“Who are you? Where are you going?”
Alki explained to the faces, which drifted in and out of sight in the fluctuant light. There was a pause and the clatter of work seemed to resume behind the interrogators.
“The land will never allow you in.” came a reply.
With that a pair of hands grabbed Dan’s shoulders and pulled him out of the settling dust. Back under a streetlight of the main track, a small, muscular man revealed himself.
“My name is Julius, you said you would go to Goma? I am from there. It is a very bad place.” He swung between French and English as he told them of his decision to flee the town. Many of his family had been brutally murdered or scattered in recent years. Goma, Dan and Alki’s chosen destination 100 miles downriver, was worse than ever. The strong preyed on the weak and the authorities extorted or robbed as much as the rebels. The fighting had also intensified in recent months.
“I can help you with the border posts, and you can bribe them,” he explained, “but any good guard would send you back.”
Two days later, they were indeed let across the border and into the Congo. Julius seemed to have a positive effect on the grim officials. However, after an afternoon’s drive into the interior, they were stopped at a road block and sent back. The border guard was a good man and it was too dangerous. They agreed it was time to head back to Uganda and re-join the expedition.
These were the shreds off stories that Rich and I, working in central Uganda, later heard. We would of course be reunited later as a group. Meanwhile, away from the hospital, we were trying to find some adventure of our own. When we weren’t on the wards, or rebuilding Tess, we would peruse the many street-side stalls of Iganga. Rows of kiosks and trays sold spiced kebabs and tender sweetmeats to the passing traffic. The ‘Rolex’ (omelette rolled in chapatti) became a staple. On the balcony of Sol bar, the trendy NGO worker hangout, we planned our weekends. Kat, Keeley and Morgan joined in our planning.
Our first weekend was spent on the banks of the White Nile as she left Lake Victoria, young and fresh, on her long journey north. We had last seen these wayfaring waters at Khartoum and had a lot to catch up on. If only she knew the changing lands and distant people she would meet. There was not much time for anthropomorphising however.
In the campsite we saw a familiar Landrover and motorbike. It was our old nemeses the ‘Cruising to Cape town’ boys and Claire (also overlanding to Cape Town). We had last seen them in Addis Ababa, as they set off before us on the Lake Turkana road. The stage was set for an eventful weekend. By day we would swim and rope swing on the riverbank. By night we would cook, eat and sample the delights of ‘David Beckham Gin’ (with the reassuring slogan: Clear Mornings Guaranteed). At the campsite bar we met a large NGO group called ‘One Acre’. They had called-in their volunteers for the upcoming Kenyan election and were having a bit of a party. The scene was set for merriment.
One lasting memory was of the Sunday night. There had been a slight misunderstanding over supper. We had been casually invited to eat at the One Acre buffet. However the restaurateur took issue with our apparent freeloading and demanded payment. He issued a warning in rounded South African syllables.
“You’re taking the piss guys. This is Africa. People disappear out here.”
We calmly explained that we were unable to pay but were prepared to sing for our supper. This seemed to diffuse the situation. Before we knew it, we had a concert on our hands. The word spread over the following day and another act signed up: A guitar-fiddle duo of legendary reputation. That evening a great fire was lit and an intimidating crowd gathered. Both acts gave it their all, taking it in turns to play and sing. The two chaps we were supporting were magnificent and our novelty seemed to be holding the crowd. We almost exhausted our entire repertoire. At 3am the crowd had thinned out and the adrenalin worn off. We returned to our tent, exhausted.
Tess was now looking healthier and was ready for the road. We took her up for a rainy weekend at Mount Elgon, on the Kenyan border. The car was loaded with fine food and drink and the camping gear prepared. An afternoons driving through the lush eastern farmland brought us to the foot of yet another Great Rift Valley volcano. As we wound up the switchback roads, a typically almighty storm broke. It was to last all night.
This however only increased the fun. Rich and I raised a great tarpaulin shelter and walled the sides. Hurricane lamps were lit and we clustered into a cosy circle. We were determined to show off how camping for us was an art that we had perfected. Pots, pans and spices clattered out and a great chilli-con-carne prepared over our single petrol stove. The glasses were charged with beer and stiff G+Ts to drive out the cold. The guitar was handed around and a fuzzy glow descended onto the evening’s memories.
The storm broke that night and in the clear morning we awoke to find that we had pitched camp on an immense cliff. Waterfalls in spate, crashed down to the flatlands below us. We spent the weekend exploring the caves and raging watercourses on the mountainside. We also met Jasper, a Danish ex-pat, African adventurer and former coach of the Ugandan Olympic cycling team. He had come to train for an upcoming road-bike event on the mountainside. We bonded over music and stories of Africa. We arranged to meet up in Kampala.
We arrived in the Capital for the following bank holiday weekend ready for a much needed break from work. Kampala is a fun, easy going city, that doesn’t seem to sleep. Like many capitals the traffic system renders the roads unusable for most of the day. We saw in Friday, mingling in restaurants and bars, an experience we had almost forgotten on our long road through North-eastern Africa.
We met up with Jasper, who we found to be a bottomless well of knowledge on Africa and seemingly friends with everyone in Uganda. He recommended the restaurant of a good friend and some good bars. Rich, Kat, Keeley and I expressed our desires to push on west to the Rwenzori Mountains, jealous of the stories filtering back from Dan and Alki. Jasper put us in contact with his friend Benjamin, who lived out by the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest on one of the crater lakes. We left Kampala the following morning.
It was a long day’s drive after a long night but the Ugandan roads were of excellent quality. Benjamin had to arrange a friend to meet us at Fort Portal, the Rwenzori frontier town. It was dark and we had driven the length of the country. We were pushing ourselves hard. An hour’s drive on forest tracks made it clear that we would not have found him ourselves.
Spotlights glaring, we slipped and climbed along a muddy off-road track and met him outside his house. With the engine off, the jungle closed in. Benjamin was warm and welcoming with dreadlocks and a smooth French accent. He had worked for the Red Cross in most of the trouble spots of Africa over the last decade and had settled in this remote but peaceful corner of Uganda. He had a small wooden house and a few acres of land sloping down to the lake. Here he was creating his own Eden; nurturing hundreds of species of rare trees, plants and flowers, which in turn had attracted an array of bird and animal life from the forest. Monkeys, Forest elephants and even Chimpanzees had been sighted around the house. As well as the local people for company, a lone male Hippo had recently appeared in the lake and was a regular visitor onto his land, although only cautious attempts had been made at befriending it.
A night time tour of the forest was abandoned when we were driven out by army ants so we retreated back to the candle lit cabin. We listened to Benjamin’s stories of life in Somalia and the Congo and ate cheese, bread and forest fruits. We then retired to pitch our tents by the lake. Nobody was trampled by a Hippo that night.
In the morning we realised why Benjamin had chosen this place. The morning sun glowed through the High buttress root trees and in the canopy monkeys, hornbills and great blue torracos hopped between branches. Flowers exploded out of the undergrowth and everything was wet and earthy. The lake was still and, apart from the bank where we had camped, walled by mossy granite. Benjamin came down to join us for a swim (true to form in tight, French Speedos). We checked the water for Hippos and dived in.
Another day’s drive brought us into the mountains, where Dan and Alki had traversed before us. Rainclouds obscured the snowy caps and the sheer, forested sides looked like they might rise up forever. We celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day with a Guinness sitting on the west side of the range, the great Congo basin spanning before us. We trekked up into the hills, soaked in rain. The paths were slicked in red mud and the sparse inhabitants vanished into the elephant grass as we approached. When the clouds closed in, it was easy to get lost.
We camped down in the thin strip of forest between the Rwenzoris and the Congo border, where we were allowed to stay in the ranger’s compound for free. The extra shelter proved invaluable against the ensuing downpour. It remains the most violent deluge I have ever seen.
The long drive back to Iganga began the following day at 6am and finished at 9pm. Our way was guided by the steady flashes of lightning in the eastern horizon. We were fatigued to our absolute limit but had managed to see a good deal of the country without sacrificing much time from our work.
A week later we were reunited with Dan and Alki and it was time to say our goodbyes to a country that had given us an unconditional welcome and so many stories.