A Travellerspoint blog

October 2011

Not the puppies

sunny 30 °C

The area of the DRC I have been traversing on my never ending Easter egg style hunt for UXO is in the remote North West corner. It is a charming little part of the world, the people are friendly and they see few enough white people up here that it appears to still be a kind of novelty. In fact at our recent campsite in Budjala I was attracting quite a following. I even saw one parent holding his child up, pointing at me and chatting rather animatedly about what I was. Now I am quite certain as to what it feels like to be an animal in a zoo. I even draw a crowd when I go to shower, as the screen is only high enough to cover me from the shoulders down. They sit and happily watch me apply soap to various parts of my body and scrub and rinse myself down. They will stare riveted and watch me do the most mundane things. This is, I suspect, what life was like before television. Thankfully I have never had to make the choice of either sitting around talking or going down the road to watch a scruffy white man take a shower. The only thing that is missing in this zoo actually is a decent breeding program, now that would draw the crowds.

The one part of the local character that I have come to recognise is what I like to call the Congolese scowl. They will regard you in the most disturbing manner upon first spotting you. It isn’t a look that I would call pure hatred, but more like the one that people in Wild West saloons give you just after you have casually waltzed through the door and the piano player stops. The kind of “I don’t know what you think you are doing here but you are clearly not welcome and I rather liked that tune the piano man was playing his name is Bert by the way and I bet you didn’t know his name was Bert and that’s because you are obviously not from around here and Bert only plays to people he has known since pre-school and that clearly isn’t you and he won’t start again until you leave so you’d better go now or I’ll blow your fuckin’ head off” look. The thing is though, that if you smile and say hello the look instantly changes into something quite pleasant. It is honestly the most startling transformation and just another quirk of the local population.

We arrived into a town called Akula to find that the local ferry had broken down. Having just endured 12 hours of Richards driving to this point I was a little fragile to put it mildly and not really in the mood for this kind of news. “How long will it take to fix” I enquired rather optimistically, though knowing deep down that a manned mission to mars was most likely to happen first.
“Oh should be back in action by March I reckon” came the reply from the rather helpful ticket salesman, though no mention of which year that March might be in. Why he was manning his booth to sell tickets to a non-existent ferry is another question altogether. At least it was until he added rather hopefully “Would you like a ticket?”
The Congolese are not in the same league of capitalist fever that the Sudanese are under but they give it a go. If they think they can make a buck they will try. One method is to find a piece of road in a rather shoddy state of repair (not too taxing so far) and then spend a couple of days filling in all the gaps until it is somewhat passable and erect a toll booth. Another is to try and sell ordnance to people like me.

After our disappointment with the ferry we were fortunate enough to be put up in the Police compound for the night before we had to turn around and commence the 4 day journey back the way we came. A prospect I was not relishing. Anyway the chief of police invited me in for a chat which is always entertaining considering I don’t speak French, and mentioned that he had taken some stuff off the locals and was keeping it safe. Now his idea of safe and mine are obviously two different things for the small collection of large mortars and RPG’s was piled up against the wall in the kitchen. The huts in Akula are built mainly of palm fronds, easy to replace and surprisingly waterproof. It also makes the entire structure rather flammable, and they cook on open fires. When I asked what was on the other side of the wall I was informed that it was occupied by a school, “Young children are eager to learn” he added, accompanied by a big smile.
“I see” came my reply as I further investigated the pile of doom and running the scenario through my head.
“Ordnance kicks off for one of a dozen reasons (fire, lightning, someone hitting it with a hammer) kills a room full of kiddies who are eager to learn and then goes where?” I mused to myself as I stuck my head through the far wall of the school. Want to guess what I found there? I know what you are thinking and no, it wasn’t a room full of puppies. It was in fact a road, on the other side of which was a rather large fuel storage facility. If you got that going and you could take out the whole side of the river.

So I explained all this to the Police chief and he looked at me solemnly for the duration of my speech and then stated “So how much money will you give me to take it away?” He is obviously a man who treasures his children and puppies. (OK I know the puppies weren’t there but it makes the story more relatable for people without children). He seemed genuinely disappointed when I told him that we didn’t pay to take things away. So disappointed, in fact, that he looked at me sternly and stated “Well you can’t have them then.” (He is speaking in French by the way so say it with a sneer and an outrageous accent to get the full effect. Something like “Vell you can’t have zem zen”)
“No drama” I replied quite cheerfully. “Just sign here for me then.” I continued pointing to a document that I had already prepared. It basically outlined what he had, where he had it and what would happen if it went bad. It then carried on and said that I had offered to dispose of it for him but he had refused on the grounds we wouldn’t pay him, and so when it finally did go bad then the fault was his. He balked a bit at that, grumbled for a while, gave me a proper scowl and handed the pile over to us for free.


I disposed of it the next day in a single demolition outside of town. A rather satisfying explosion, in more ways than one. The police chief insisted on coming and was rather excited by the whole affair, as most people are when they come to a dem. I should have charged the bastard admission.

Posted by Dangermouse 03:21 Archived in Democratic Republic of Congo Comments (0)

Don't stop until the spoon stands straight up

storm 30 °C

There are some things in life you should try. Undoubtedly there are some things that will make your life so much richer. Obviously the list is quite personal; skydiving for example will give you an experience that is hard to forget. However throwing yourself out of a perfectly good aircraft only to hurtle towards the earth, putting all your trust in the fact that a small backpack filled with string and silk will magically arrest your descent, can be a bit much for some people. Still I am sure everyone has a list of things that will make their life more interesting, and these things should be pursued with all the vigour that can be afforded to them.

Equally there are things in life that should be avoided at all costs. These are the things that are not only guaranteed not to make your life better but actually shorten it by a considerable amount. Things like drinking anything in a blue bottle kept in the laundry, sleeping on a freeway, juggling chainsaws or watching Meg Ryan movies. Congolese cooking is in that category. For as rich as the culture and as delightful the music may be, the Congolese are the worst cooks I have encountered thus far. In fact on the list of things not to do in your lifetime I would put eating Congolese food somewhere between ramming your head against a brick wall and having your fingernails pulled out with pliers. It won’t kill you but it certainly won’t be pleasant.

“How bad can it be??” I hear you ask. Well for a start they love oil, just love the stuff. And then they also seem to have an affinity for salt, can’t get enough of it. Most meals come out so heavily salted that upon taking one bite your head goes a bit fuzzy and you can see through time. The basic rules for cooking go as follows; take one perfectly good piece of meat, deep fry it, then boil it for an extended period of time adding more oil, add “flavour”, then toss in so much salt you would think it was being prepared for a 6 month sea voyage onboard the Endeavour. Serve with homemade dough type substance that is so full of sand and grit you could use it to rub the paint off your car. The only way to describe it is quite foul, though in fact one particular meal topped the lot for grossness. It was pork. It looked OK, like any other meal in fact, until I took a bite. The only way I can properly describe it is to say that it tasted the way that sewerage smells. Quite possibly the most disgusting thing I have ever put into my mouth and the only thing besides avocado that made me want to throw up immediately. (I know lots of people love avocado but I just can’t stand it. I am thinking of starting a group.) As I looked around in horror I noticed the other members of my team munching away quite happily. One can only presume that the excesses of salt over the years has destroyed their taste buds.

Oh and before I leave this alone to pursue other matters of great interest let me share with you the recipe for Congolese coffee. Take one decent sized mug and add 1-2 teaspoons of coffee. Not too bad so far right?? (Though I still can’t understand how people drink coffee either but that is for another time.) Into this add 2 tablespoons of milk powder (milk is almost non-existent here) and then add 5-6 TABLESPOONS of sugar. That’s right tablespoons. This would be the equivalent of 20 teaspoons of sugar. I guess you don’t stop until the spoon can be stood on its end in your drink. The result no longer has a real fluid form, more like slurry. So for all you coffee lovers who would like to give this one a go I would really be interested in hearing the results.

During my travels I have had time to ponder one of lifes great riddles, and it involves chickens. No not the which came first thing, the answer is obviously the egg, as dinosaurs were laying eggs for millions of years before chickens came along and birds are an offshoot of these magnificent creatures. No this one has to do with their fascination with crossing the road. I have been witness to this for the last few weeks and feel it is time to put my thoughts down on the record. Firstly I am starting off by declaring chickens to be the dumbest creature on the face of the earth, hands down. Were the Dodo alive today it would not only beat a chicken in a round of University Challenge, but no doubt get all the points. The Dodo actually wasn’t a dumb bird, but did have a compulsion to respond to calls from other Dodo’s. This coupled with their inability to fly made them exceedingly easy to shoot. European explorers have a lot to answer for. Chickens on the other hand seem to have a compulsion to throw themselves into traffic.

As we go hurtling through rural DRC I have been witness to this compulsion on a number of occasions. Every other animal we may come across tends to run away from the car, and quite rightly too as Richard doesn’t brake for anything. They will often take refuge in the long grasses or other things that will give them a sense of cover from the great white mechanical best that is bearing down upon them. Chickens, on the other hand, will wait until the last minute and then launch themselves from the long grasses they had previously been hiding in, and run madly across the road just in front of the vehicle, in order to hide in the grass on the other side. There is no reasoning to their suicidal habit. Mother hens will abandon their chicks and take off, leaving the hapless chicks to either try and stay put or, more likely and far more disturbingly, try and follow their mother. It often doesn’t end well. I have even seen chickens run close to 50m in order to throw themselves in front of the vehicle.

So to answer the old adage “Why did the chicken cross the road??” The answer can only be one of two things. Because they are either monumentally stupid, or they are the worlds most dedicated adrenaline junkies. You decide.

Posted by Dangermouse 03:15 Archived in Democratic Republic of Congo Comments (0)


Some things just require a story of their own. Some things are just so incredibly incredible that to place them into another piece of prose is doing them a grave injustice. So for this tale I am not going to bother you with any of my more obscure ramblings. Things like Jason Segals actions in Forgetting Sarah Marshall for instance. I mean I honestly have no idea what it is that women find attractive about the naked male body. Women are beautiful, have curves and breasts among many other fine attributes. Men on the other hand are rather straight, sharp and have an extra appendage not unlike a short tail on the wrong side. In fact if the man in question is happy it will wag for a bit before turning into a hat rack. But as for nice to look at, well I just can’t agree. If I need any further backup here I challenge you to try and name me 5 famous nudes painted my masters……of men. So Jason, mate, you are a funny bugger but please put the mouse back in the house.

My driver, Richard, is a nice bloke who used to drive for Mobutu. In fact it is hard to find someone working for MAG who didn’t do something for Mobutu. Anyway the cagey old African dictator must have enjoyed motorsports because Richard has two speeds, Mach 5 and stop. On normal roads this would be exciting enough, however on severely deteriorated dirt roads, and some of which most 4wd enthusiasts would love to tackle, it can be downright scary. Richard tends to shoot off at warp speed, then brake heavily 5m before an obstacle so we sort of crash and bounce through it before mashing the accelerator to the floor and repeating the process. Ever hit a speed bump a little too quickly? Try doing it at 1000kph and then do it again another million times a day. I have never been more worried in a vehicle in my life, and I once actually kissed the ground after alighting from one of my friends cars on completion of a hair raising and rapid tour through Sydney.

Anyway on some of the straighter pieces of road that are in a decent state of repair, Richard will barrel along as fast as the vehicle will allow him. The only warning you get of his arrival is a blaring of the horn and the sounds of a 2.0 litre Hilux engine imploring him to back off. The grasses on these stretches are right on the edge of the road and as such you tend to go ripping through them as you progress as speeds close to g-loc. If your window is not wound up all manner of things then get flung into the cabin, branches, ants, a rather impressive praying mantas, caterpillars, grasshoppers and ………. a spider.

This spider was smallish; the abdomen was maybe a bit smaller than the size of an Australian 5c piece, and quite wonderfully leggy in a way that only spiders and giraffes seem to do well. Now normally I quite like spiders, I think in fact that they have been given a rather bad rap. But I love Australian spiders because I know which ones will kill you (fewer than you think) which ones are poisonous and will just make you sick (most of them) and which ones are harmless. African spiders, on the other hand, I have no idea about and this one was now dangling on a thin strand of web from the rim of my hat, which made it look at least a thousand time bigger and leggier than it actually was. So I turned and casually asked my driver if it was at all dangerous. His immediate response was to take one look at the offending arachnid and slam on the brakes. This caused the spider to sway first towards the windscreen, dangle briefly at the far extent of its pendulum before swinging back in a graceful arc and landing on my face.

I have to admit that getting bitten on the face by an unknown spider is not high on my list of things to do. If I am really honest I would have to confess it would not be on the list at all. So whilst I paused for a moment to consider my options regarding this new predicament Richard sprang into action and began enthusiastically, one might argue a little too enthusiastically, slapping me in the face in an attempt to kill the spider. The spider meanwhile, no doubt a little confused about what was happening, started reacting as most reasonable creatures do when they are under attack and started running around wildly trying to avoid this unprovoked assault. To be honest I was doing my share of ducking and weaving as well and for one brief horrifying moment, I thought the spider was contemplating taking shelter inside one of my nostrils, a prospect I did not at all find to my liking. So I hurled myself out of the car, as much to get away from the beating I was sustaining as anything else, and started shaking my head in the manner of a dog who has just returned from a swim. The spider, realising thankfully that a tactical withdrawal is often a winning move, released its grip on my face and made a daring launch into thin air before landing on the ground and scurrying off to seek shelter under a rock. I am sure it was looking back at me suspiciously, no doubt a little shaken, and wondering what the hell that was all about.

Not the actual spider but a great photo anyway.

As I got back into the car Richard was looking at me quite expectantly.
“So was it dangerous or not mate?” I enquired.
“OK” beamed Richard before giving me a big smile, a thumbs up and mashing the accelerator to the floor, taking off once more in pursuit of the Road Runner or some other rapid creature. If Wiley Coyote had Richard on his side he could have saved himself a lot of personal trauma.

So crisis averted I resumed my task of hanging on for dear life and wondering if I had remembered to update my will. And as for the spider, well I think in future I will keep my bug discoveries to myself.

Posted by Dangermouse 03:04 Archived in Democratic Republic of Congo Comments (0)

Donald Duck and Papa Smurf

storm 30 °C

I have finally gotten to work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (I will have to shorten it to DRC from now on as I don’t really type that fast and this could take forever otherwise) and it has been full of surprises so far.

For a start I am working in the remote North West corner and to get here we had to take a trip on one of those extremely small planes, the type that are always appearing on Air Crash Investigation and Destroyed In Seconds. To add to the general feeling of unease the departure was delayed for technical reasons. I have seen mechanics at work in the DRC, and honestly couldn’t imagine there was a workshop filled with all the correct tools and dedicated qualified aircraft mechanics to fix the problem. But still we managed to get airborne and surprisingly stay up there long enough to get me where I needed to go. My home base for the next 2 months is in a town called Gemena. From here I will pack up my tent and go forth into the great unknown that is the DRC, find things of an explosive nature and fulfill their destiny by making them go bang.

I have deployed with my new team for a 1 month sojourn into the Congolese jungle. I have to admit I was quite excited about this. The Congo is one of the great jungles of the world. For me it had held a kind of mystique unmatched by anything else with the exception of maybe the Amazon. Sure they have pygmies and tribes that shrink heads but the Congo has Tarzan and George. Top that!! Whilst it is maybe not as I had imagined it, and to be fair I was going off stories I heard when I was 10, it is still quite an experience. My team is quite a jovial bunch, who are all trying to learn English. They are practicing hard each night so they can impress me with a new sentence each morning. It is quite nice to see them approach and sprout something obscure like “I am going to the supermarket” and waiting for a response. The only problem is that they are learning off a tape that is a Frenchman speaking English. So they talk in that annoying French way like the guards on castle of "Our Master Ruiz' de lu la Ramper". So each night I am giving them lessons in how to speak properly, like a true Australian.

On our second day out one of our vehicles broke down. We were cruising along quite happily when the gearbox started making noises like a strangled cat, followed by a lot of clunking followed by nothing much at all. This sent my base staff into a bit of a panic as it meant that I was stuck in the jungle with the locals and I was in immediate peril. To be honest I was in about as much peril as Sir Galahad (though nowhere near as much fun as his perils) and was in fact rather enjoying myself. The locals were friendly, the children were quite cheerful and there was so much Donald Ducking you would be forgiven for thinking you were in Disneyland. (Donald Ducking, for those who don’t know, is the manner of wearing a shirt and nothing else. It is a process that is thankfully limited to the very young.) If you ever want to feel like a celebrity then swan into a small town in the middle of nowhere, hop out of the car and ask politely if they mind you setting up camp. If you really want to get stared at, then start doing a workout. I looked up at one point and there was a semi circle of people standing about 5m from me watching intently.

The areas I have been working in so far are quite confusing. This was until the 1950’s a Belgian colony and as such had quite a lot of infrastructure installed. They had paved roads, good housing, electricity, churches and everything that any good budding colonist could want. Then under Mobutu it crumbled dramatically, a lot less was being spent on keeping the country going and more was going to the Mobutu retirement fund, such is the way with African dictators. He was even personally chartering the Concord for personal shopping trips to Paris. By the way did you know he changed his name to suit his office?? It became "the all powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, shall go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake", I am thinking honestly of doing something similar.
Mobutu's palace in Lisala on the banks of the Congo river.

Anyway the thing is that the country had all these things and now has nothing, nothing. The buildings are all falling apart, houses are occupied until they rot away and then a mud hut is built in the back yard. The streets are still partly paved, and even street lights are in place, though no longer functioning. It is a bit of a pity and I have spent a bit of time wandering around trying to imagine how this place looked when it was in its prime.

Abandoned church DRC

It's a pity these buildings are left to decay.

That is not to say it is entirely the fault of the Congolese. They did just come through the great silent war after all, a war that killed almost as many people as World War 2 and yet remained relatively unreported in the west. A war that took such a heavy toll on the DRC they are still trying to recover from it and a lot of people are still displaced or unwilling to come back. This is the reason that I am here as they are still incapable of cleaning up the mess, they just don’t have the resources. The DRC could be quite a power in Africa; they are a large country and rich in resources. They have beautiful rainforest and jungle areas, gorillas in the eastern highlands, fertile lands for agriculture and an established rubber industry. All they really need is a long period of peace and a government that is concerned with improving the country, rather than their own retirement fund.

So I think I am going to share some of my “have you ever?” experiences that I have had in the short time I have been here so far.

Have you ever had a shower in a clearing of the Congolese jungle with nothing but you and a bucket of water?? I have.
Have you ever been the subject of such curiosity that people will travel a good distance just to come and watch you eat, read or just walk around?? I have.
Have you ever had children rub your arm to see if the white will come off?? I have.
Have you ever seen what appears to be a massive black hole in the road explode and transform into a thousand butterflies as you approach?? I have.
Have you ever woken up to see a scorpion on your pillow?? I have (though to be fair in Sudan in did wake up with one on my chest.)

I am sure there are more; as I am sure that there is more to follow. I am being constantly surprised by the DRC. I wouldn’t say it is my favourite place in the world, but it does have a charm all of its own. If you have ever been to the jungle areas of Asia then it is a lot like that, only with a lot more Africans and much worse food. If they could get things sorted out here it could be an extremely nice place to visit one day.

I have to end this with a tribute to a friend of mine who died recently. He was my wifes grandfather and she affectionately referred to him as Papa Smurf. He was a nice bloke, a man of the land and one of those very genuine people. He was hard as a coffin nail, tough as old boots, extremely kind and generous to those who deserved it and a man of his word. Even in his 90’s he would still tend his gardens and work around his house. Now reaching your 90’s is a feat in itself, but he was that rare breed that retains their spark. He was in essence a 21 year old trapped in an old mans body, and he had a way with the ladies that would make Hugh Heffner take notes. With some people, especially the elderly, you hear it said it was a blessing that they died. Not Papa Smurf and that makes it as tragic to me as anyone who dies young.

He will be honestly and truly missed, and in the end that is all that any of us can ask for. RIP mate.

Posted by Dangermouse 02:02 Archived in Democratic Republic of Congo Comments (0)