Rhino ride for thick-skinned humans

Jane Griffiths among other travellers on board typical Congo transport. Picture: Duncan Guy

Jane Griffiths among other travellers on board typical Congo transport. Picture: Duncan Guy

Published Aug 12, 2023


Durban - “Caramba,” my late father-in-law would often exclaim to express amazement.

I conveniently misheard it, and enjoyed it, as being “Garamba”. A reminder of the most remote place I have ever travelled to, not to mention the roughness of the experience.

For that reason it was worth exclaiming “Garamba” myself when I read about 16 southern white rhino, some from KwaZulu-Natal, being relocated all the way to the Garamba National Park on the Democratic Republic of Congo side of that country’s border with South Sudan.

How did they get there? News reports said “the rhinos were transported from South Africa to Barrick’s Kibali Mine airstrip in north-eastern DRC and then trucked to Garamba National Park in two separate operations”.

Jane Griffiths, now a well-known food gardening author, and I rode jungle lorries to reach the park where, at the time, the last of the northern white rhino lived.

Long threatened by poaching in the notoriously corrupt country, known as Zaire when we visited there in 1987, the northern cousin is now extinct, so our southern fellows are filling in the gap.

Though not well known, the country was one of a handful on the continent that one could visit on the old “green mamba” passports. However, it made Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s Malawi that was the standard South African backpacking destination, with its crowded bus network, seem First World by comparison.

In Zaire, crowded lorries, colloquially known as “camions”, carrying goods under tarpaulins and paying passengers on top, were the only public transport available. On a good day, one covered about 120km along jungle tracks.

A vehicle stuck in the mud could cause a traffic jam lasting days. The best way to bypass this was to say “au revoir” to one “camion”, walk around the forlorn carrier and say “bonjour”, or “jambo” in kiSwahili, to one giving up and turning around.

While South Africans could get visas for the former Zaire, extensions were usually hard to come by. Given the hard travelling, extra time was often needed.

In the scenic east of the country, which has the Garamba National Park at its northern tip, travellers would simply cross into a neighbouring country – Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi or Tanzania – and get another visa and then re-enter.

But not South Africans on “green mambas”. We weren’t allowed to set foot in any of them.

So, Jane and I just risked it on expired visas without much trouble, at first.

Then, our first “sting” happened. It was at night while bopping away in a mud hut disco to a song that mentioned “Nelson Mandela et son femme, Winnie” at a village on the shore of Lake Albert (then called Lake Mobutu Sese Seko), at the end of a notorious road called “Salaam ma Bibi” (Goodbye, my wife). A drunk man introduced as “Le chef d’AND (Agence National D’Immigration) ordered us to meet him in the morning to present our passports.

“They’ve expired,” he remarked before explaining, while writing out endless notes, that this would effectively cost us a crate of beer.

A couple of other people pitched up, claiming to also be VIPs, and began to argue with one another, one saying he was a representative of “le (big man) president” and the other claiming to represent the youth wing of the ruling party, Le Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution.

After parting with enough money to buy the requested beer, “le chef” issued us a stamped letter saying we could proceed with our journey.

Many days and “camion” rides later, closer to the Garamba National Park, a ”chef d’AND” in the town of Dungu, on a river with the same name, did not buy his colleague’s letter and ordered the “fine” of enough money to buy him a crate of beer, or face deportation to Juba, in Sudan (now South Sudan).

Two little South Africans were keen to rather pay the “fine”.

Amusingly, the villager who had been summoned to act as our interpreter told us straightforwardly in English he had learnt across the border: “These officials are terrible. They do not do any work. They just take money from people. Not only you but us as well.”

Battered by “camions” and arrests, we took up an invitation from a Canadian missionary pilot to fly into the park, following the Dungu River as it snaked through the countryside that marked the transition from equatorial forest to bright green “cream soda” savannah.

The missionary Cessna made a daredevil dive down to conservationists Kes and Fraser Smith’s home on a bank high above the Dungu to announce the arrival of visitors.

They were there to study the last of the northern white rhino, living a Robinson Crusoe life in the wilderness where a container of supplies, including much-loved Ultramel custard, arrived once a year.

Aircraft wrecks were a common site at Zaire’s airports. At the Garamba airfield, Kes’s Cessna looked sad, its wings having collapsed. Lions had recently climbed on board.

We wandered the savannah in their Land Cruisers, named Frank and Furt after the Frankfurt Zoological Society which sponsored their work, in the hope of spotting a northern white rhino but the grass was too high.

The excitement of getting close to elephants made up for that. Not only in the wild but also at the remnants of an old colonial elephant training programme.

Another form of wildlife visited us one night. Fraser’s ears twitched as he heard something outside in the bush.

“Run for the Land Cruisers,” he shouted, first running to grab their baby from the bed where she was sleeping.

We were in the path of a battalion of army ants.

There was no Cessna to take out of the Garamba National Park so we returned to our “camion” ways but we had become streetwise enough not to visit any formal hotels in the towns we passed through. The AND were known to inspect the registers. Instead we stayed in lodgings in the surrounding shanty towns. To our delight, they were cleaner, cheaper and free of officials.

On the morning of our departure from Isiro, Jane felt under the weather and asked if she could travel in the cab of a “camion”. I took my perch on top as the cowboy driver made his way along the jungle track.

Midway through the morning, when the “camion” made its first stop, I went to check up on Jane. She looked pale as a corpse.

“The driver has been drinking some sort of equivalent of ‘witblitz’,” she muttered.

“The only way I can try to make sure he drinks less is to share the stuff with him.”


The Independent on Saturday