Entering Zaire – A Real Dictatorship

We headed out early and hit the Zairian border in the mid-morning. Zaire is a total dictatorship – as bad as one can get – so the bureaucracy is massive. We’d read a few weeks earlier that the Prime Minister wanted to have some governmental body directly elected, but the ruling dictator – Mbutu – didn’t like that idea so he told the Prime Minister to dismiss his cabinet and reappoint the dictator’s men to those posts. The Prime Minister refused so Mbutu moved in the military and basically ousted most of the cabinet members. It was a very low-key coup d’etat, and here we were at Zaire’s border waiting to get in.

We cleared immigration without any problems, but the customs guy was just being a dick and told everyone to get off the truck so he could inspect it. He opened our food stores and after discussing the merits of which country the milk powder was manufactured in with our driver he let us through. Had the milk powder been made in Kenya he would have kept it, as Zairians have great respect for Kenyan-made products. We stopped for lunch near Uvira where a little old Zairian woman with a cane wandered right into the middle of our group.

Now when the locals watch us they’re usually far enough away as not to get in the way. This little old lady was near blind and wandered right into the middle to see what was going on. I spoke to her in French for a little while, then Mike gave her a tomato, a bread roll and a cigarette. She was so funny – I’ve got a photo of myself looking and chatting with her, a very fond memory – hope it turns out. We sent her on her way and started the truck – needed to start heading to Goma so we could book our trip to see the gorillas, but Goma was at least a two day drive and Zaire has virtually no paved roads at all. The only way to get to Kinshasa, the capital, from the eastern side of the country is by the river – there aren’t any roads!

I climbed into the front with Stefanie and Boz (who was driving) for this next leg of the journey. We drove a few hours but then we came upon a customs and immigration post. We sat there for a second thinking, “Why would Zaire have two customs posts?” The reason was that it wasn’t Zaire at all – it was the border post with Rwanda! Rwanda’s currently in the throes of their own civil was, so no tour companies are transiting through there any longer. One of the Rwandan police told us we didn’t want to go into Rwanda because the bandits have been robbing safari trucks as they transit through. Evidentially we’d taken a wrong turn somewhere. We thanked the police officer (who then asked us for five dollars and got nothing), did a U-turn and headed up the muddy roads higher and higher into the Zairian mountains.

It rained a bit making the road muddier and the truck harder to control, plus the temperature was dropping. We persevered by drinking Primus and eating the pineapple which had been soaking in the rum from our punch the night before. We finally hit the summit and descended (more slid) through the mud to this quarry at the base of the mountains. It was dark by this time so setting up camp was on our agenda. As usual a few locals came and watched us, so I approached them to practice my French some more. I found out from them that there was a natural hot spring not twenty meters from our campsite – we’d just missed it because it was dark. I thanked them for the information and told them they could show us in the morning.

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