We startled ourselves by arriving in Zaire on a missionary flight, which had not been our original intention. All regular flights in and out of Kinshasa had been disrupted by an outbreak of vicious bickering between Zaire and its ex-colonial masters, the Belgians, and only a series of nifty moves by Mark, telexing through the night from Godalming, had secured us this back door route into the country via Nairobi.
We had come to find rhinoceroses: northern white rhinoceroses, of which there were about twenty-two left in Zaire, and eight in Czechoslovakia. The ones in Czechoslovakia are not in the wild, of course, and are only there because of the life’s work of a fanatical Czech northern white rhinoceros collector earlier in this century. There is also a small number in San Diego zoo, California. We had decided to go to rhino country by a roundabout route in order to see some other things on the way.
The aircraft was a sixteen-seater, filled by the three of us -Mark, Chris Muir our BBC sound engineer and myself – and thirteen missionaries. Or at least, not thirteen actual missionaries, but a mixture of missionaries, mission school teachers, and an elderly American couple who were merely very interested in mission work, and wore straw hats from Mia mi, cameras, and vacantly benign expressions which they bestowed on everyone indiscriminately, whether they wanted them or not.not.
We had spent about two hours in the glaring sun creeping sleepily around the dilapidated customs and immigration offices in a remote corner of Nairobi’s Wilson airport, trying to spot which was to be our plane, and who were to be our travelling companions. It’s hard to identify a missionary from first principles, but there was clearly something odd going on because the only place to sit was a small three-seater bench shaded from the sun by the overhanging roof, and everybody was so busy giving up their places on it to everybody else that in the end it simply remained empty and we all stood blinking and wilting in the burgeoning morning heat. After an hour of this, Chris muttered something Scottish under his breath, put down his equipment, lay down on the empty bench and went to sleep until the flight was ready. I wished I’d thought of it.
I knew from many remarks he had made that Mark had a particular dislike of missionaries, whom he has encountered in the field many times in Africa and Asia, and he seemed to be particularly tense and taciturn as we made our way out across the hot Tarmac and took our tiny, cramped seats. I then became rather tense myself as the plane started to taxi out to the runway, because the pre-flight talk from our pilot included a description of our route, an explanation of the safety features of the aircraft, and also a short prayer.
I wasn’t disturbed so much by the ‘O Lord, we thank Thee for the blessing of this Thy day’, but ‘We commend our lives into Thy hands, O Lord’ is frankly not the sort of thing you want to hear from a pilot as his hand is reaching for the throttle. We hurtled down the runway with white knuckles, and as we climbed into the air we passed a big, old, cigar-fat Dakota finally coming in to land, as if it had been delayed by bad weather over the Great Rift Valley for about thirty years.
In contradiction of everything sensible we know about geography and geometry, the sky over Kenya is simply much bigger than it is anywhere else. As you are lifted up into it, the sense of limitless immensity spreading beneath you to infinitely distant horizons overwhelms you with excited dread.
The atmosphere on board the plane, on the other hand, was so claustrophobically nice it made you want to spit. Everyone was nice, everyone smiled, everyone laughed that terribly benign fading away kind of laugh which sets your teeth on edge, and everyone, strangely enough, wore glasses. And not merely glasses. They nearly all had the same sort of glasses, with rims that were black at the top and transparent at the bottom, such as only English vicars, chemistry teachers and, well, missionaries wear. We sat and behaved ourselves.
I find it very hard not to hum tunelessly when I’m trying to behave myself, and this caused, I think, a certain amount of annoyance in the missionary sitting next to me, which he signalled by doing that terribly benign fading away kind of laugh at me till I wanted to bite him.
I don’t like the idea of missionaries. In fact the whole business fills me with fear and alarm. I don’t believe in God, or at least not in the one we’ve invented for ourselves in England to fulfil our peculiarly English needs, and certainly not in the ones they’ve invented in America who supply their servants with toupees, television stations and, most importantly, toll-free telephone numbers. I wish that people who did believe in such things would keep them to themselves and not export them to the developing world. I sat watching the Mia mi hats as they gazed out of the window at Africa – between an immensity of land and an immensity of sky they sat there, incomprehensible, smiling at a continent. I think Conrad said something similar about a boat.oat.
They smiled at Mount Kenya, beamed at Mount Kilimanjaro, and were winsomely benign at the whole of the Great Rift Valley as it slid majestically past beneath us. They were even terribly pleased and happy about coming in to land for a brief stop in Mwanza, Tanzania, which is more, as it turned out, than’ we were.
The aircraft trundled to a halt outside a sort of bus shelter which served Mwanza as an airport, and we were told we had to disembark for half an hour and go and wait in the `international transit lounge’.
This consisted of a large concrete shed with two fair-sized rooms in it connected by a corridor. The building had a kind of bombed appearance to it – some of the walls were badly crushed and had tangles of rusty iron spilling from their innards and through the elderly travel posters of Italy pasted over them. We moved in for half an hour, hefted our bags of camera equipment to the floor and slumped over the battered plastic seats. I dug out a cigarette and Mark dug out his Nikon F3 and MD4 motordrive to photograph me smoking it. There was little else to do.
After a moment or two a man in brown crimplene looked in at us, did not at all like the look of us and asked us if we were transit passengers. We said we were. He shook his head with infinite weariness and told us that if we were transit passengers then we were supposed to be in the other of the two rooms. We were obviously very crazy and stupid not to have realised this. He stayed there slumped against the door jamb, raising his eyebrows pointedly at us until we eventually gathered our gear together and dragged it off down the corridor to the other room. He watched us go past him shaking his head in wonder and sorrow at the stupid futility of the human condition in general and ours in particular, and then closed the door behind us.
The second room was identical to the first. Identical in all respects other than one, which was that it had a hatchway let into one wall. A large vacant-looking girl was leaning through it with her elbows on the counter and her fists jammed up into her cheekbones. She was watching some flies crawling up the wall, not with any great interest because they were not doing anything unexpected, but at least they were doing something. Behind her was a table stacked with biscuits, chocolate bars, cola, and a pot of coffee, and we headed straight towards this like a pack of stoats. Just before we reached it, however, we were suddenly headed off by a man in blue crimplene, who asked us what we thought we were doing in there. We explained that we were transit passengers on our way to Zaire, and he looked at us as if we had completely taken leave of our senses.
‘Transit passengers? he said. ‘It is not allowed for transit passengers to be in here.’ He waved us magnificently away from the snack counter, made us pick up all our gear again, and herded us back through the door and away into the first room where, a minute later, the man in the brown crimplene found us again.
He looked at us.
Slow incomprehension engulfed him, followed by sadness, anger, deep frustration and a sense that the world had been created specifically to cause him vexation. He leant back against the wall, frowned, closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.
‘You are in the wrong room,’ he said simply. `You are transit passengers. Please go to the other room.’
There is a wonderful calm that comes over you in such situations, particularly when there is a refreshment kiosk involved. We nodded, picked up our gear in a Zen-like manner and made our way back down the corridor to the second room. Here the man in blue crimplene accosted us once more but we patiently explained to him that he could fuck off. We needed chocolate, we needed coffee, maybe even a reviving packet of biscuits, and what was more we intended to have them. We outfaced him, dumped our bags on the ground, walked firmly up to the counter and hit a major unforeseen snag.
The girl wouldn’t sell us anything. She seemed surprised that we even bothered to raise the subject. With her fists still jammed into her cheekbones she shook her head slowly at us, and continued to watch the flies on the wall.
The problem, it gradually transpired after a conversation which flowed like gum from a tree, was this. She would only accept Tanzanian currency. She knew without needing to ask that we didn’t have any, for the simple reason that no one ever did. This was an international transit lounge, and the airport had no currency exchange facilities, therefore no one who came in here could possibly have any Tanzanian currency and therefore she couldn’t serve them.
After a few minutes of futile argument we had to accept the flawless simplicity of her argument and just sit out our time there gloomily eyeing the coffee and chocolate bars, while our pockets bulged with useless dollars, sterling, French francs and Kenyan shillings. The girl stared vacantly at the flies., obviously resigned to the fact that she never did any business at all. After a while we became quite interested in watching the flies as well.
At last we were told that our flight was ready to depart again, and we returned to our planeload of missionaries.
Where, we wondered, had they been while all this had been going on? We didn’t ask After an hour or so we landed at last at Bukavu, and as we taxied up to the terminal shacks of the airport the plane resounded to happy cries of `Oh, how wonderful, the bishop’s come to meet us!’ And there he was, big and beaming in his purple tunic, wearing glasses with frames that were black at the top and transparent at the bottom. The missionaries, the mission school teachers and the American couple who were merely very interested in missionary work climbed smiling out of the plane, and we, pausing to pull our camera bags out from under our seats, followed them.
We were in Zaire.
I think the best way of explaining what goes so hideously wrong with Zaire is to reproduce a card we were given by a tourist officer a few days later.
One section of it was written in English, and is for the benefit of the tourist. It goes like this:
Madam, Sir, On behalf of the President-Founder of the MPR, President of the Republic, of his government and of my fellow-citizens, it is agreeable for me to wish you a wonderful sojourn in the Republic of Zaire. In this country you will discover majestic sites, a luxuriant flora and an exceptional fauna. The kindness and hospitality of the Zairean people will facilitate your knowledge of the tradition and folklore.
Our young nation expects much from your suggestions and thanks you for your contribution in helping it to welcome the friends you will send us in a much better way.
Minister of ECNT.
That seems fair enough. It’s the other section which makes you begin to worry a bit about what you might in fact find. You are meant to show it to any Zalrois you actually meet and it goes like this:
ZAIREANS, HELP OUR VISITORS The friend holding this card is visiting our country. He is our guest.
If he wants to take photographs, be polite and friendly to him. Do your best to have him enjoy his sojourn, and he will come back, bringing his friends with him.
By helping him, you help your country. Never forget that tourism provides us with returns which allow us to create new jobs, to build schools, hospitals, factories, etc.
On the welcome that our guest would have received will depend our touristic future.
It’s alarming enough that an exhortation like this should be thought to he necessary, but what is even more worrying is that this section is written only in English.
No ‘Zairean’ – or Zairois as they actually call themselves -speaks English, or hardly any do.
The system by which Zaire works, and which this card was a wonderfully hopeless attempt to correct, is very simple. Every official you encounter will make life as unpleasant for you as he possibly can until you pay him to stop it. In US dollars. He then passes you on to the next official who will be unpleasant to you all over again. By the end of our trip this process would assume nightmarish proportions, by comparison with which our first entry into Zaire was a relatively gentle softening up process, and consisted of only two hours of rain and misery in huts. huts.
The first thing we saw in the customs but was a picture which gave us a clue about how our expedition to find endangered wildlife in Zaire was going to go. It was a portrait of a leopard. That is it was a portrait of part of a leopard. The part of the leopard in question had been fashioned into a rather natty leopardskin pillbox hat which adorned the head of Marshal Mobuto Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, the President of the Republic of Zaire, who gazed down on us with a magisterial calm while his officials got to work on us.on us.
One was a large and fairly friendly man who occasionally offered us cigarettes and the other was a small, nasty man who kept on stealing ours. This is, of course, the classic interrogation method, designed to bring the victim to the brink of pathetic emotional breakdown. It’s obviously a technique they learnt somewhere and have just found the habit hard to break, even though all they actually wanted to know from us was our names, passport numbers and the serial numbers of every single piece of equipment we had with us.
The big man in particular seemed to wish us no personal ill as he guided us gently through the insanity to which it was his duty to subject us, and I came to recognise a feeling I’ve heard described when oddly close and touching relationships develop between torturers and their victims or kidnappers and their hostages. There is a feeling of all being in this together. The forms we had to fill in were headed ‘Belgian Congo’, crossed out, with ‘Zaire’ written in in pencil, which meant that they had to be at least eighteen years old. The only form they didn’t seem to have was the only one we actually wanted. We had been warned by friends that we had to get ourselves a currency declaration form when we entered Zaire or we would hit trouble later on. We repeatedly asked for one, but they said they had run out. They said we could get one in Goma and that would be all right.
They toyed with the idea of confiscating my Cambridge Z88 laptop computer just in case we were planning to overthrow the government with it, but in the end the small nasty man merely confiscated Chris’s car magazine on the grounds that he liked cars and then, for now, we were free.
We went into the town of Bukavu in a sort of taxi-like thing. The town turned out to be an enormous distance from the airport, probably at the insistence of the taxi-drivers. As we bounded along the appallingly rutted road that followed the margin of the lake and along which a significant proportion of the population of Zaire seemed to be walking, our driver kept on diving beneath the dashboard of the car for long periods at a time. I watched this with some alarm, which was severely increased when I eventually worked out what he was doing. He was operating the clutch by hand. I wondered whether to mention this to the others but decided that, no, it would only worry them. Mark later mentioned that we had not passed any other motor vehicles at all on the drive, except for a couple of trucks which had been parked for so long that they no longer had any rear axles. I didn’t notice this myself, because once I had identified what the driver was doing with the clutch I simply kept my eyes closed for the remainder of the journey.
When at last we arrived at the hotel, which was surprisingly airy and spacious for such a dilapidated town as Bukavu was, we were rattled and exhausted and we started to yawn at each other a lot. This was a kind of unspoken code for being fed up with the sight of one another despite the fact that it was only six in the evening. We each went off to our respective rooms and sat in our separate heaps.
I sat by the window and watched as the sun began to go down over the lake, the name of which I couldn’t remember because all the maps were in Mark’s room. From this vantage point, Bukavu looked quite idyllic, situated on a peninsula which jutted into the lake. Lake Kivu. I remembered the name now. I was still feeling very jangled and jittery and decided that staring at the lake a bit might help.
It was placid and silvery, shading to grey in the distance where it met the fading shapes of the hills that surrounded it. That helped.
The early evening light cast long shadows over the old Belgian colonial houses that were stepped down the hill from the hotel, huddled about with bright blossoms and palm trees. That was good too. Even the green corrugated roofs of the cruder new buildings were soothed by the light. I watched the black kites wheeling out over the water and found that I was calming down. I got up and started to unpack the things I needed for the night and at last a wonderful sense of peace and well-being settled on me, disturbed only by the sudden realisation that I had once again left my toothpaste in last night’s hotel. And my writing paper. And my cigarette lighter. I decided it was time to explore the town.
The main street was a grim hill, wide, dishevelled and strewn with rubbish. The shops were for the most part concrete and dingy, and because Zaire is an ex-Belgian colony every other shop is a pharmacie, just like in Belgium and France, except that none of them, as it happened, sold toothpaste, which bewildered me.
Most of the other shops were in fact impossible to identify. When a shop appeared to sell a mixture of ghetto blasters, socks, soap and chickens, it didn’t seem unreasonable to go in and ask if they’d got any toothpaste or paper stuck away on one of their shelves as well, but they looked at me as if I was completely mad. Couldn’t I see that this was a ghetto blaster, socks, soap and chicken shop? Eventually, after trailing up and down the street for half a mile in either direction I found both of them at a tiny street stall which also turned out to sell biros, airmail envelopes and cigarette lighters, and in fact seemed to be so peculiarly attuned to my needs that I was tempted to ask if they had a copy of New Scientist as well.
I then realised that most of the essentials of life were available out on the street. Photocopying, for example. Here and there along the street were rickety trestle tables with big old photocopiers on them, and I had once or twice been hailed by a street hustler and asked if I wanted to have something photocopied or sleep with his sister. I returned to the hotel, wrote some notes on the writing paper, which for some reason was pink, and slept as if I were dead.
The following morning we flew to the town of Goma. Here we discovered that even when making internal flights in Zaire you still had to go through the full rigmarole of immigration and customs controls all over again. We were held under armed guard while a large and thuggish airport official interrogated us in his office as to why we hadn’t acquired any currency declaration forms at Bukavu.
The fact that they hadn’t had any currency declaration forms to give us at Bukavu cut no ice with him.
`Fifty dollars,’ he said.
His office was large and bare and contained just one small desk with two sheets of paper in a drawer. He leant back and stared at the ceiling, which had obviously seen a lot of this sort of thing going on. Then he leant forward again and pulled the palms of his hands slowly down over his face as if he were trying to peel it off. He said again, `Fifty dollars. Each,’ and then stared idly at the corner of his desk and rolled a pencil slowly in his fingers. We were subjected to an hour of this before he finally tired of our appalling French and let us go.
We emerged blinking from the airport and, miraculously, met up with the driver that some friends of Mark’s had organised to take us up into the Virunga volcanoes where the mountain gorillas lived.
The gorillas were not the animals we had come to Zaire to look for. It is very hard, however, to come all the way to Zaire and not go and see them. I was going to say that this is because they are our closest living relatives, but I’m not sure that that’s an appropriate reason. Generally, in my experience, when you visit a country in which you have any relatives living there’s a tendency to want to lie low and hope they don’t find out you’re in town. At least with the gorillas you know that there’s no danger of having to go out to dinner with them and catch up on several million years of family history, so you can visit them with impunity. They are, of course, only collateral relatives – nth cousins, n times removed. We are both descended from a common ancestor, who is, sadly, no longer with us, and who has, since Darwin’s day, been the subject of endless speculation as to what manner of creature he/she was.
The section of the primate family of which we are members (rich, successful members of the family, the ones who made good and who should, by any standards, be looking after the other, less well-off members of the family) are the great apes. We do not actually call ourselves great apes, though. Like many of the immigrants at Ellis Island, we have changed our names. The family we call the great apes includes the gorillas (of which there are three subspecies: mountain, eastern lowland and western lowland), two species of chimpanzee, and the orang utans of Borneo and Sumatra. We do not like to include ourselves in it – in fact the classification `Great Apes’ was originally created specifically to drive a wedge between us and them. And yet it is now widely accepted that the gorillas and chimpanzees separated from us on the evolutionary tree more recently than they did from other great apes. This would mean that the gorillas are more closely related to us than they are to the orang utans. Any classification which includes gorillas and orang utans must therefore include us as well. one way or another, we and the gorillas are very very close relatives indeed -almost as close to each other as the Indian elephant and the African elephant which also share a common, extinct ancestor.
The Virunga volcanoes, where the mountain gorillas live, straddle the border of Zaire, Rwanda and Uganda. There are about 280 gorillas there, roughly two-thirds of which live in Zaire, and the other third in Rwanda. I say roughly, because the gorillas are not yet sufficiently advanced in evolutionary terms to have discovered the benefits of passports, currency declaration forms and official bribery, and therefore tend to wander backwards and forwards across the border as and when their beastly, primitive whim takes them. A few stragglers even pop over into Uganda from time to time, but there are no gorillas actually living there as permanent residents because the Ugandan part of the Virungas only covers about twenty-five square kilometres, is unprotected and full of people whom the gorillas, given the choice, would rather steer clear of.
The drive from Goma takes about five hours, and we made the hastiest departure we could manage after two and a half hours of serious madness with a ticket agent, a hotel manager, a lunch break and one of the larger national banks, which it would be tedious to relate, but not half as tedious as it was to undergo.
Things hit a limit, though, when I was set upon by a pickpocket in a baker’s shop.
I didn’t notice that I was being set upon by a pickpocket, which I am glad of, because I like to work only with professionals. Everybody else in the shop did notice, however, and the man was hurriedly manhandled away and ejected into the street while I was still busy choosing buns. The baker tried to tell me what had happened but my Zairois French wasn’t up to it and I thought he was merely recommending the curranty ones, of which I therefore bought six.
Mark arrived at that moment with some tinned pears, our gorilla permits and our driver, who quickly understood what was going on and explained to me what had happened. He also explained that the currant buns were no good, but said we might as well keep them because none of the others was any good either and we had to have something. He was a tall, rangy Muslim with an engaging smile, and he responded very positively to the suggestion that we should now get the hell out of here.
When people talk of `darkest Africa’, it’s usually Zaire they have in mind. This is the land of jungles, mountains, enormous rivers, volcanoes, more exotic wildlife than you’d be wise to shake a stick at, hunter-gatherer pygmies who are still largely untouched by western civilisation, and one of the worst transport systems anywhere in the world. This is the Africa in which Stanley presumed to meet Dr Livingstone.
Until the nineteenth century this enormous tract of Africa was simply a large black hole in the centre of any European map of the dark continent but it was only after Livingstone’s penetration of the interior that the black hole began to exercise any gravitational effect on the outside world.
The first people to pour in were the missionaries: Catholics who arrived to teach the native populace that the Protestants were wrong and Protestants who came to teach that the Catholics were wrong. The only thing the Protestants and Catholics agreed about was that the natives had been wrong for two thousand years.
These were closely followed by traders in search of slaves, ivory, copper and suitable land on which plantations could be established. With the help of Stanley, who was on a five-year contract to open up the interior of Africa, King Leopold of the Belgians successfully laid claim to this vast region in 1885 and promptly subjected its inhabitants to an exceptionally brutal and ruthless form of colonisation, thus giving them a practical and convincing demonstration of what `wrong’ actually meant.
When news of the worst atrocities leaked to the outside world, Leopold was forced to hand over `his’ land to the Belgian government, who took it upon themselves to do virtually nothing about it. But by the nineteen-fifties independence movements were sweeping across Africa and, after riots and appalling massacres in the capital, Kinshasa, in 1959, the colonial authorities were shaken so badly that they granted independence the following year. The country eventually changed its name from the Belgian Congo to Zaire in 1971.
Zaire, incidentally, is about eighty times the size of Belgium.
Like most colonies, Zaire had imposed on it a stifling bureaucracy, the sole function of which was to refer decisions upwards to its colonial masters. Focal officials rarely had the power to do things, only to prevent them being done until bribed. So once the colonial masters are removed, the bureaucracy continues to thrash around like a headless chicken with nothing to do other than trip itself up, bump into things and, when it can get the firepower, shoot itself in the foot. You can always tell an ex-colony from the inordinate numbers of people who are able find employment stopping anybody who has anything to do from doing it.
Five hours of sleepy bumping in the van brought us to Bukima, a village in the foothills of the Virungas which marks the point where the road finally gives up, and from which we had to travel on by foot.
Set a little way above the village, in front of a large square, was an absurdly grand ex-colonial building, empty except for an absurdly small office tucked into the back where a small man in an Army uniform pored over our gorilla permits with a grim air of bemusement, as if he’d never seen one before, or at least not for well over an hour. He then occupied himself with a short wave radio for a few minutes before turning to us and saying that he knew exactly who we were, had been expecting us, and that because of our contacts with the World Wildlife Fund in Nairobi he was going to allow us an extra day with the gorillas, and who the hell were we anyway, and why had no one told him we were coming?
This seemed, on the face of it, to be unanswerable, so we left him to try and figure it out for himself while we went to look for some porters to help us with our baggage for the three hour walk up to the warden’s but where we were to spend the night. They weren’t hard to find. There was a large band of them gathered hopefully round our van and our driver was eager to know how many we needed to carry all our bags. He seemed to emphasise the word `all’ rather strongly.
There was a sudden moment of horrible realisation. We had been so keen to clear out of Goma as fast as possible that we had
forgotten , a major part of our plan, which was to leave the bulk of our gear at a hotel in town. As a result of this oversight we had, more baggage with us than we actually needed to carry up to the gorillas.s.
A lot more.
As well as basic gorilla-watching kit – jeans, T-shirt, a sort of waterproof thing, a ton of cameras and tins of pears – there was also an immense store of dirty laundry, a suit and shoes for meeting my French publisher in Paris, a dozen computer magazines, a thesaurus, half the collected works of Dickens and a large wooden model of a Komodo dragon. I believe in travelling light, but then I also believe I should give up smoking and shop early for Christmas.
Hiding our considerable embarrassment, we chose a team of porters to carry this little lot up into the Virunga volcanoes for us. They didn’t mind. If we were prepared to pay them to carry Dickens and dragons up to the gorillas and back down again then they were perfectly happy to do it. White men have done much worse things in Zaire than that, but maybe not much sillier.
The trek up to the warden’s but was strenuous, and involved plenty of stops for sharing our cigarettes and Coca-Cola with the bearers, while they frequently redistributed the bags of Dickens and computer magazines between themselves and experimented with different and novel methods of keeping them on their heads.
For much of the time we were tramping through wet fields of sago, and a foolish but happy thought suddenly occurred to me. We were walking through the only known anagram of my name – which is Sago Mud Salad. I speculated footlingly as to what possible cosmic significance there could be to this and by the time I had finally dismissed the thought, the light was fading and we had arrived at the hut, which was a fairly spartan wooden building, but new and quite well built.
A damp and heavy mist hung over the land, almost obscuring the distant volcano peaks. The evening was unexpectedly cold, and we spent it by the light of hissing Tilley lamps, eating our tinned pears and our single remaining bun, and talking in broken French to our two guides whose names were Murara and Serundori.
These were magnificently smooth characters dressed in military camouflage and black berets who slouched across the table languidly caressing their rifles. They explained that the reason for the get-up was that they were ex-commandos. All guides had to carry rifles, they told us, partly as protection against the wildlife, but more importantly in case they encountered poachers. Murara told us that he had personally shot dead five poachers. He explained with a shrug that there was pas de probleme about it. No bother with inquests or anything like that, he just shot them and went home.
He sat back in his chair and idly fingered the rifle sight while we toyed nervously with our pear halves.
Poaching of one kind or another is, of course, the single most serious threat to the survival of the mountain gorillas but it’s hard not to wonder whether declaring open season on human beings is the best plan for solving the problem. We are not an endangered species ourselves yet, but this is not for lack of trying.
In fact the poaching problem is declining – or at least parts of it are. Four in every five of the gorillas alive in the world’s zoos today were originally taken from the wild, but no public zoo would accept a gorilla now, except from another zoo, since it would be a bit difficult to explain where it came from.
However, there is still a demand for them from private collectors, and the unprotected Ugandan part of the Virungas is still a weak link. In September 1988 an infant was captured on the Ugandan side: two adult members of its family were shot dead and the young animal was later sold to Rwandan smugglers by a game warden (now in prison) for about ?15,000. This is the most destructive aspect of this sort of poaching – for every young gorilla captured, several other members of its family will probably die trying to protect it.
Worse than those who want to collect gorillas for their private zoos are those who just want to collect bits of gorillas. For many
years there was a brisk trade in skulls and hands which were sold to tourists and expatriates who mistakenly thought they would look finer on their mantelpieces than they did on the original gorilla. This, thank goodness, is also now declining since a taste for bone-headed brutality is now held to be less of a social grace than formerly.y.
In some parts of Africa gorillas are still killed for food, though not in the Virunga volcanoes – at least, not deliberately. The problem is that many other animals are, and gorillas very frequently get caught in traps set for bushbuck or duiker. A young female gorilla called Jozi, for example, caught her hand in a wire antelope snare and eventually died of septicaemia in August 1988. So to protect the gorillas, anti-poaching patrols are still necessary.
There were two other people sharing our but that evening. They were a couple of German students whose names I appear now to have forgotten, but since they were indistinguishable from all the other German students we had encountered from time to time on our trips I will simply call them Helmut and Kurt.
Helmut and Kurt were young, fair-haired, vigorous, incredibly well equipped, and much better than us at virtually everything. We saw very little of them during the early part of the evening because they were very busy preparing their meal. This involved constructing some kind of brick oven outside, and then doing a lot of coming and going with bowls of boiling water, stopwatches, penknives and dismembered bits of the local wildlife. Eventually they sat and ate their feast in front of us with grim efficiency and an insulting refusal to make any disparaging glances at all in the direction of our tinned pear halves.
Then they said they were going to bed for the night, only they weren’t going to sleep in the but because they had a tent with them, which was much better. It was a German tent. They nodded us a curt good night and left.
In bed that night, after I had lain awake for a while worrying about Murara and Serundori’s casual propensity for shooting people, I turned to worrying instead about Helmut and Kurt. If they were going to be like that, then I just wished they hadn’t actually been German. It was too easy. Too obvious. It was like coming across an Irishman who actually was stupid, a mother-in-law who actually was fat, or an American businessman who actually did have a middle initial and smoke a cigar. You feel as if you are unwillingly performing in a music-hall sketch and wishing you could rewrite the script. If Helmut and Kurt had been Brazilian or Chinese or Latvian or anything else at all, they could then have behaved in exactly the same way and it would have been surprising and intriguing and, more to the point from my perspective, much easier to write about. Writers should not be in the business of propping up stereotypes. I wondered what to do about it, decided that they could simply be Latvians if I wanted, and then at last drifted off peacefully to worrying about my boots.
Mark had told me before we went to bed that when I woke up the first thing I had to remember was to turn my boots upsidedown and shake them.
I asked him why.
`Scorpions,’ he replied, `Good night.’
Early in the morning Murara and Serundori were waiting at the but door fondling their rifles and machetes, and wearing meaningful glints in their eyes that we weren’t at all certain we liked. However, they had good news for us. Since gorillas tend not to make their personal arrangements to suit the convenience of visiting collateral relatives, they were sometimes to be found up to eight hours’ trek away from the warden’s hut. Today, however, the news was that they were only about an hour’s distance from us, so we would have an easy day of it. We gathered together our gorilla-watching gear, carefully leaving behind the dragon, the Dickens and also our flash guns, on the assumption that these were all things that would, to differing degrees, upset the gorillas, said good morning to Helmut and Kurt, who were joining us for the expedition, and set off together in search of
the gorillas. Ahead of us through the misty morning light reared the hump of Mikeno volcano.o.
The forest we plunged into was thick and wet and I complained about this to Mark.
He explained that gorillas like to live in ‘montane’ rain forest, or cloud forest. It was over 3,000 metres above sea-level, above the cloud level, and always damp. Water drips off the trees the whole time.
`It’s not at all like lowland primary rain forest,’ said Mark, `more like secondary rain forest, which is what you get when primary forest is burnt or cut down and then starts to regenerate.’
`I thought that the whole problem with rain forest was that it wouldn’t grow again when you cut it down,’ I said.
`You won’t get primary rain forest again, of course. Well, you might get something similar over hundreds or thousands of years, we don’t know. Certainly all of the original wildlife will have been lost for good. But what grows in the short term is secondary rain forest, which is far less rich and complex.
`Primary rain forest is an incredibly complex system, but when you’re actually standing in it it looks half empty. In its mature state you get a very high, thick canopy of leaves, because of all the trees competing with each other to get at the sunlight. But since little light penetrates this canopy there will tend to be very little vegetation at ground level. Instead you get an ecological system which is the most complex of any on earth, and it’s all designed to disseminate the energy which the trees have absorbed from the sun throughout the whole forest.
‘Cloud forest, like this, is much simpler. The trees are much lower and more spaced out so there is plenty of ground cover vegetation as well, all of which the gorillas like very much because it means they can hide. And there’s plenty of food within arm’s reach.’
For us, however, all the thick, wet vegetation made the forest hard work to fight through. Murara and Serundori swung their machetes so casually through the almost impenetrable under growth that it took me a while to begin to see that there was more to it than just vague hacking.
Machetes are a very specific shape, a little like the silhouette of a banana with a fattened end. Every part of the blade has a slightly different curve or angle of cut to the line of movement, and a different weight behind, it as well. It was fascinating to watch the instinctive ways in which, from one slash to another, the guides would adapt their stroke to the exact type of vegetation they were trying to cut through – one moment it would be a thick branch, another moment it would be banks of nettles and another moment tangled hanging vines. It was like a very casual game of tennis played by highly skilled players.
Not only was the forest thick, it was also cold, wet and full of large black ants which bit all of us except for Helmut and Kurt who were wearing special ant-proof socks which they had brought with them from Latvia.
We complimented them on their foresight and they shrugged and said it was nothing. Latvians were always well prepared. They looked at our recording equipment and said that they were surprised that we thought it was adequate. They had much better tape recorders than that in Latvia. We said that that might very well be so, but that we were very happy with it and the BBC seemed to think it was fine for the job. Helmut (or was it Kurt?) explained that they had much better broadcasting corporations in Latvia.
The outbreak of outright hostilities was happily averted at this moment by a signal from our guides to keep quiet. We were near the gorillas.
‘But of course,’ said Kurt, with a slight smile playing along his thin Latvian lips, as if he’d known all the while that this was exactly where the gorillas would be.
But it wasn’t a gorilla itself that had attracted our guides’ attention, it was a gorilla’s bed. By the side of the track along which we were walking there was a large depression in the undergrowth where a gorilla had been sleeping for the night.
Plant stems had been pulled down and folded under to keep the gorilla off the ground which was cold and damp at night.
One of the characteristics that laymen find most odd about zoologists is their insatiable enthusiasm for animal droppings. I can understand, of course, that the droppings yield a great deal of information about the habits and diets of the animals concerned, but nothing quite explains the sheer glee that the actual objects seem to inspire.
A sharp yelp of joy told me that Mark had found some. He dropped to his knees and started to fire off his Nikon at a small pile of gorilla dung.
‘It’s in the nest,’ he explained once he had finished, ‘which is very interesting, you see. The mountain gorillas, the ones that live here, actually defecate in their nests because it’s too cold to get up at night. The western lowland gorillas, on the other hand, don’t. They live in a warmer climate, so getting up in the middle of the night is less of a problem. Also, the western lowland gorillas live on a diet of fruit which is another incentive for not shitting in their nests.’
`I see,’ I said.
Helmut started to say something, which I like to think was probably something about having far superior types of gorilla dung in Latvia, but I interrupted him because I suddenly had one of those strange, uncanny feelings that I was being watched by a truck.
We kept very quiet and looked very carefully around us. There was nothing we could see near us, nothing, in the trees above us, nothing peering furtively from the bushes. It was a moment or two before we saw anything at all, but then at last a slight movement caught our eyes. About thirty yards away down the track we were following, standing in plain view, was something so big that we hadn’t even noticed it. It was a mountain gorilla, or perhaps I should say a gorilla mountain, standing propped up on its front knuckles so that it assumed the shape of a large and muscular sloping ridge tent.
You will have heard it said before that these creatures are awesome beasts, and I would like to add my own particular perception to this: these creatures are awesome beasts. It is hard to know how better to put it. A kind of humming mental paralysis grips you when you first encounter a creature such as this in the wild, and indeed there is no creature such as this. All sorts of wild and vertiginous feelings well up into your brain, that you seem to have no connection with and no name for, perhaps because it is thousands or millions of years since such feelings were last aroused.
I’m going to be a bit fanciful for moment, because it is very hard not to be when your rational, civilised brain (f use the words in the loosest possible sense) experiences things it has no way of recognising or accounting for but which are nevertheless very powerful.
I’ve heard an idea proposed, I’ve no idea how seriously, to account for the sensation of vertigo. It’s an idea that I instinctively like and it goes like this.
The dizzy sensation we experience when standing in high places is not simply a fear of falling. It’s often the case that the only thing likely to make us fall is the actual dizziness itself, so it is, at best, an extremely irrational, even self-fulfilling fear. However, in the distant past of our evolutionary journey towards our current state, we lived in trees. We leapt from tree to tree. There are even those who speculate that we may have something birdlike in our ancestral line. In which case, there may be some part of our mind that, when confronted with a void, expects to be able to leap out into it and even urges us to do so. So what you end up with is a conflict between a primitive, atavistic part of your mind which is saying, jump!’ and the more modern, rational part of your mind which is saying, `For Christ’s sake, don’t.’
Certainly the dizzy experience of vertigo seems to have far more in common with feelings of oscillating mental conflict and confusion than it does with simple fear. If it is a fear, it’s one we love to play with and tease ourselves with, which is how designers of big dippers and Ferris wheels make a living.
The feeling I had looking at my first silverback gorilla in the wild was vertiginous. It was as if there was something I was meant to do, some reaction that was expected of me, and I didn’t know what it was or how to do it. My modern mind was simply saying, `Run away!’ but all I could do was stand, trembling, and stare. The right moment for something seemed to slip away and fall into an unbridgeable gulf between us and the gorilla, and left us simply gawping helplessly on our side. The gorilla, meanwhile, seemed to notice that we had been busy photographing its dung and merely stalked off into the undergrowth.
We set off to follow it, but it was in its own element and we were not. We were not even able to tell whereabouts in its own element it was and after a while we gave up and started to explore the area more generally again.
The gorilla we had seen was a large male silverback. `Silverback’ simply means that its back was silver, or grey-haired. Only the backs of males turn silver, and it happens after the male has reached maturity. Tradition has it that only the chief male of a group will develop a silver back, and that it will happen within days, or even hours, of it taking over as leader, but this apparently is nonsense. Popular and beguiling nonsense, but nonsense. And while we are on the subject of nonsense I should mention something that we discovered a few days later when talking to Conrad Aveling, a field researcher in Goma who has for years been responsible for gorilla conservation work in the area.
We told Conrad how alarmed we had been by Murara and Serundori’s accounts of simply going out and mowing down the local poachers, and he sat back in his chair, kicked up his heels and roared with laughter.
`It’s incredible what these guys will tell the tourists! I bet they told you they were ex-commandos as well, did they?
We admitted, rather sheepishly, that they had. Conrad clasped his hand to his brow and shook his head.
‘The only thing about them that’s ex-commando,’ he said, ‘is their uniforms. They buy them off the commandos. The commandos sell them to buy food because they hardly ever get paid. It’s all complete nonsense. I heard another great story the other day. A tourist had asked a guide – and this was at Rawindi where there are no gorillas – the tourist asked, “What happens when a gorilla meets a lion?” And instead of answering, “Well, that’s a silly question, because lions and gorillas live in completely different areas and would never ever meet,” the guide obviously feels obliged to think of some sort of colourful answer. So he says, “What happens is that the gorilla beats the hell out of the lion, then wraps his body in leaves and twigs and then stamps on him.” I only heard about it myself because the tourist came to me afterwards and said how fascinated he had been to hear about it. It bothers me when they make up these colourful answers. I wish I could make them understand that if they don’t know the answer, or they think the right answer isn’t very interesting, it’s better to say so rather than just invent absolute nonsense.’
One thing that was beyond dispute, however, was that when our guides were not inventing stuff or acting out Rambo fantasies, they really knew the forest, and they really knew the gorillas. They had (and Conrad Aveling confirmed all this enthusiastically) themselves ‘habituated’ two of the gorilla groups for human contact. `Habituating’ is a very long, complicated and delicate business, but, briefly, it is the process of contacting a group in the wild, and visiting them every day, if you can find them, over a period of months or even years and training them to accept the presence of human beings, so that they can then be studied and also visited by tourists.
The length of time it takes to habituate gorillas depends on the dominant silverback. He’s the one whose confidence you have to win. In the case of the family group we were visiting it took fully three years. Conrad Aveling spent the first eight months of his time on the project crawling around in the undergrowth with them, but never actually saw them once, though he was often no more than twenty or thirty feet away.
`One of the problems of habituating in this sort of habitat,’ he explained, ‘is that it’s so thick you can’t see each other and what happens is you end up having these sudden confrontations at about three or four metres or less, and you still can’t see each other. Everybody’s jumping out of their skin. The gorilla’s jumping out of his skin, I’m jumping out of mine. It’s extremely exciting. You get a real adrenalin rush. A problem with the Bukavu group was that the silverback wouldn’t charge. I actually wanted him to, because then, having charged, he would expose himself and then realise that I didn’t mean him any harm. But he wouldn’t do that, he just kept circling. Usually they do charge, and if they do you have this face-to-face, and you have a moment to understand that neither of you means the other any harm and the gorilla backs off.’
`But you go into a submissive posture, do you? asked Mark. `You don’t confront him??
‘No, I usually don’t go into a submissive posture. I’m usually too frightened to move.’
Once a silverback accepts humans, the rest of the group will quickly fall into line, and, interestingly enough, any other groups in the area will usually become habituated much more quickly. There is hardly ever any trouble provided everybody treats everybody else with respect. The gorillas are perfectly capable of making it clear when they don’t wish to be disturbed. There was one occasion on which a gorilla group had had a particularly stressful morning as a result of an encounter with another gorilla group, and the last thing they wanted was to be bothered with humans in the afternoon, so when a tracker brought some tourists and overstayed his welcome the silverback took hold of the tracker’s hand and gently bit his watch off.
Now the business of tourism is obviously a vexed one. I had myself wanted to visit the gorillas for years, but had been deterred by the worry that tourism must be disturbing to the gorillas’ habitat and way of life. There is also the risk of exposing the gorillas to diseases to which they have no immunity. It is well known that the famous and extraordinary pioneer of gorilla conservation, Dian Fossey, was for most of her life passionately opposed to tourism and wished to keep the world away from the gorillas. However, she did, reluctantly, change her mind towards the end of her life, and the prevalent view now is that tourism, if it’s carefully controlled and monitored, is the one thing that can guarantee the gorillas’ future survival. The sad but unavoidable fact is that it comes down to simple economics. Without tourists it’s only a question of which will happen first – either the gorillas’ forest habitat will be entirely destroyed for crop farming and firewood, or the gorillas will be hunted to extinction by poachers. Put at its crudest, the gorillas are now worth more to the locals (and the government) alive than dead.
The restrictions, which are tightly enforced, are these. Each gorilla family can only be visited once a day, usually for about an hour, by a party of a maximum of six people, each of whom are paying US$100 for the privilege. And maybe they won’t even get to see the gorillas.
We were lucky; we did. Though after our first brief encounter with the silverback it looked, for a while, as if we would not find any more. We moved slowly and carefully through the undergrowth, while Murara and Serundori made regular coughing and grunting noises. The purpose of these was to let the gorillas know we were coming and reassure them that we meant no harm. The noises are imitations of a noise that gorillas themselves make. Apparently it doesn’t actually matter much about trying to imitate them, though. It’s hardly going to fool anyone. It just reassures the gorillas that you always make the same noise. You could sing the national anthem as far as they are concerned.
Just as we were about to give up and go back, we tried one more turning, and suddenly the forest seemed to be thick with gorillas. A few feet above us a female was lounging in a tree idly stripping the bark off a twig with her teeth. She noticed us but was not interested. Two babies were cavorting recklessly four metres from the ground in a very slender tree, and a young male was chugging through the undergrowth nearby on the lookout for food. We stared at the two babies in astounded fascination at the wonderful wild abandon with which they were hurling themselves round each other and the terrible meagreness of the tree in which they had elected to do it. It was hard to believe the tree could support them, and indeed it couldn’t. They suddenly came crashing down through it, having completely misunderstood the law of gravity, and slunk off sheepishly into the undergrowth.
We followed, encountering one gorilla after another until at last we came across another silverback lying on his side beneath a bush, with his long arm folded up over his head scratching his opposite ear while he watched a couple of leaves doing not very much. It was instantly clear what he was doing. He was mooching. It was quite obvious. Or rather, the temptation to find it quite obvious was absolutely overwhelming.
They look like humans, they move like humans, they hold things in their fingers like humans, the expressions which play across their faces and in their intensely human-looking eyes are expressions which we instinctively feel we recognise as human expressions. We look them in the face and we think, `We know what they’re like,’ but we don’t. Or rather we actually block off any possible glimmering of understanding of what they may be like by making easy and tempting assumptions.
I crept closer to the silverback, slowly and quietly on my hands and knees, till I was about eighteen inches away from him. He glanced round at me unconcernedly, as if I was just someone who had walked into the room, and continued his contemplations. I guessed that the animal was probably about the same height as me – almost two metres – but I would think about twice as heavy. Mostly muscle, with soft grey-black skin hanging quite loosely on his front, covered in coarse black hair.
As I moved again, he shifted himself away from me, just about six inches, as if I had sat slightly too close to him on a sofa and he was grumpily making a bit more room. Then he lay on his front with his chin on his fist, idly scratching his cheek with his other hand. I sat as quiet and still as I could, despite discovering that I was being bitten to death by ants. He looked from one to another of us without any great concern, and then his attention dropped to his own hands as he idly scratched some flecks of dirt off one of his fingers with his thumb. I had the impression that we were of as much interest to him as a boring Sunday afternoon in front of the television. He yawned.
It’s so bloody hard not to anthropomorphise. But these impressions keep on crowding in on you because they spark so much instant recognition, however illusory that recognition may be. It’s the only way of conveying what it was like.
After a quiet interval had passed I carefully pulled the pink writing paper out of my bag and started to make the notes that I’m writing from at the moment. This seemed to interest him a little more. I suppose he had simply never seen pink writing paper before. His eyes followed as my hand squiggled across the paper and after a while he reached out and touched first the paper and then the top of my biro – not to take it away from me, or even to interrupt me, just to see what it was and what it felt like. I felt very moved by this, and had a foolish impulse to show him my camera as well.
He retreated a little and lay down again about four feet from me, with his fist once more propped under his chin. I loved the extraordinary thoughtfulness of his expression, and the way his lips were bunched together by the upward pressure of his fist. The most disconcerting intelligence seemed to be apparent from the sudden sidelong glances he would give me, prompted not by any particular move I had made but apparently by a thought that had struck him.
I began to feel how patronising it was of us to presume to judge their intelligence, as if ours was any kind of standard by which to measure. I tried to imagine instead how he saw us, but of course that’s almost impossible to do, because the assumptions you end up making as you try to bridge the imaginative gap are, of course, your own, and the most misleading assumptions are the ones you don’t even know you’re making. I pictured him lying there easily in his own world, tolerating my presence in it, but, I think, possibly sending me signals to which I did not know how to respond. And then I pictured myself beside him, festooned with the apparatus of my intelligence – my Gore-Tex cagoule, my pen and paper, my autofocus matrix-metering Nikon F4, and my inability to comprehend any of the life we had left behind us in the forest. But somewhere in the genetic history that we each carry with us in every cell of our body was a deep connection with this creature, as inaccessible to us now as last year’s dreams, but, like last year’s dreams, always invisibly and unfathomably present.
It put me in mind of what I think must be a vague memory of a movie, in which a New Yorker, the son of East European immigrants, goes to find the village that his family originally came from. He is rich and successful and expects to be greeted with excitement, admiration and wonder.
Instead, he is not exactly rejected, not exactly dismissed, but is welcomed in ways which he is unable to understand. He is disturbed by their lack of reaction to his presence until he realises that their stillness in the face of him is not rejection, but merely a peace that he is welcome to join but not to disturb. The gifts he has brought with him from civilisation turn to dust in his hands as he realises that everything he has is merely the shadow cast by what he has lost.
I watched the gorilla’s eyes again, wise and knowing eyes, and wondered about this business of trying to teach apes language. Our language. Why? There are many members of our own species who live in and with the forest and know it and understand it. We don’t listen to them. What is there to suggest we would listen to anything an ape could tell us? Or that it would be able to tell us of its life in a language that hasn’t been born of that life? I thought, maybe it is not that they have yet to gain a language, it is that we have lost one.
The silverback seemed at last to tire of our presence. He hauled himself to his feet and lumbered easily off into another part of his home.
On the way back to the but I discovered that I had a small tin of tuna in my camera bag, so we greedily devoured this on our return, along with a bottle of beer, and that, at two o’clock in the afternoon, marked the end of fun for the day, unless you count listening to a couple of German, sorry, Latvian students explaining how good their penknives are as fun.
At this Mark started to get quietly ratty, which meant that he grasped the beer bottle very tightly between his hands and stared at it a lot. Kurt asked us what we were planning to do next and we said we were flying up to Garamba National Park to see if we could find any northern white rhinos. Kurt nodded and said that himself he thought he would probably walk to Uganda tonight.
Mark’s knuckles grew whiter round his beer bottle. Mark, like most zoologists, tends to prefer animals, to people anyway, but in this case I was with him all the way. It occurred to me that we had spent a day rapt with wonder watching the mountain gorilla, and being particularly moved at how human they seemed, and finding this to be one of their most engaging and fascinating features. To find afterwards that a couple of hours spent with actual humans was merely irritating and a bit confusing.
Three days later I found myself standing on top of a termite hill staring at another termite hill through binoculars.
I knew that what I was standing on was a termite hill, but was disappointed that the thing I was staring at was not a northern white rhinoceros, since we had been walking determinedly towards it for upwards of an hour in the blazing midday sun in the middle of what can only be described as Africa.
Also we had run out of water. I could scarcely believe, having been brought up on a rich diet of H. Rider Haggard, Noel Coward and the Eagle, that the first thing I would do on encountering the actual real savannah plains of Africa would be to march straight out into them in the midday sun and run out of water.
Though I wouldn’t admit it, of course, having been brought up on a rich diet of H. Rider Haggard, etc., I was actually a bit frightened. The point about not running out of water in the middle of the savannah is that you do actually need the stuff. Your body regularly mentions to you that you need it, and after a while becomes quite strident on the subject. Furthermore we were miles from anywhere, and though there were a number of theories flying around about where we’d left the Landrover, none of them so far had stood up to rigorous testing.
I don’t know how worried Mark or Chris were at this point, because it was difficult to get them – particularly Chris – to say anything coherent. Chris is from Glasgow, and is an excellent specimen of one of the northern races: fair-haired and fair-skinned, never happier than when carrying a DAT recorder and a microphone wrapped up in something that looks like a large dead rabbit across the Scottish moors with the wind and rain lashing at his gritted teeth. He is not a natural for the savannah. He was walking by now in smaller and smaller circles and discussing less and less sensible things while glowing like a traffic light. Mark was getting red and sullen.
The two women with us thought we were complete wimps. They were Kes Hillman-Smith, a rhino expert, and Annette Lanjouw, a chimpanzee expert.
Kes Hillman-Smith took over from me on the termite hill and scanned the horizon. Kes is in fact one of the world’s leading experts on northern white rhinos, but she was not a world authority on where in a national park the size of Scotland, the twenty-two surviving white rhino were to be found at that precise moment.
I may have got my facts wrong. I seem to have conflicting information on the size of Garamba National Park. One opinion is that it is only 5,000 square kilometres, in which case I would have to say that it was only the size of part of Scotland, but it was a big enough part for twenty-two rhinoceroses to be very effectively hidden in.
Kes had been very sceptical about the termite hill from the outset, as it would befit a world expert on rhinoceroses to be, but since it had been the only thing in the distant heat haze that looked even remotely like a rhino, and we had come all this way, she had suggested that we might as well go for it.
Kes is a formidable woman, who looks as if she has just walked off the screen of a slightly naughty adventure movie: lean, fit, strikingly beautiful, and usually dressed in old combat gear that’s had a number of its buttons shot off. She decided it was time to be businesslike about the map, which was a fairly rough representation of a fairly rough landscape. She worked out once and for all where the Landrover had to be, and worked it out with such ruthless determination that the Landrover would hardly dare not to be there, and eventually, of course, after miles of trekking, it was exactly there, hiding behind a bush with a thermos of tea wedged behind the seat.
Once we had revived ourselves with the sort of mug of tea which makes the desert bloom and angels sing, we rattled and rolled our way back to our base, which was a small visitors’ village of huts on the edge of Garamba National Park, separated from it by a small river. We were currently the only visitors to the park which, as I say, is the size of part of Scotland. This is quite surprising because the park is one of Africa’s richest. It is situated in north-east Zaire, on the border with Sudan, and takes its name from the Garamba river which meanders from east to west through the park. Its habitat is a combination of savannah, gallery forest and papyrus marshes and contains currently 53,000 buffalo, 5,000 elephants, 3,000 hippos, 175 Congo giraffes, 270 species of birds, 60 odd lion and some giant eland, which are large, spiral-horned antelopes. They know there are giant eland in the park because we saw one. The last time anybody saw one there was in the nineteen-fifties. We were rather pleased about that.
The park is very scantily visited, partly, I imagine, because of the insane bureaucratic nightmares which assail any visitor to Zaire, but also because the park is three days’ overland journey from Bunia, the nearest airport, so only the most determined visitors actually make it.
We were lucky. The Senior Management Adviser on the Garamba Rehabilitation Project, Charles Mackie, came to pick us up from Bunia in an anti-poaching patrol Cessna 185. The runway on which we landed just outside the boundaries of the park was merely a flattened piece of grass along which we bounded and hopped before finally slewing to halt. It was a dramatic change from the cold mistiness of the Virunga volcanoes – grassland as far as the horizon in every direction, hot, dry air, a Landrover bounding along dusty roads through the savannah, and elephants heaving themselves along in the hazy distance.
That evening we went to have a meal at the house which Kes shares with her husband Fraser, a park conservation manager. It was a house they built themselves, out in the bush on the edge of the river. The house is a long, low, rambling structure, full of books, and largely open to the weather – when it rains they lower tarpaulins over the spaces where the windows aren’t. For the two years it took them to build the house they lived in a tiny mud but with a pet mongoose that used to dig up the floor looking for worms, a dog, two cats – and a baby.
Because their house is so open, it is regularly full of animals. A young hippo, for instance, frequently comes to chew on the pot plants in their living room. It often spends the night asleep in their bedroom with its head resting next to the (second) baby’s cot. There are snakes and elephants in the garden, rats which eat all their soap, and termites gradually nibbling away at the support poles of the house.
The only animals that really worry them are the crocodiles, which live in the river at the bottom of the garden. Their dog was eaten by one.
‘it is a bit of a worry,’ Kes told us. ‘But we just have to make our lives as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. If we lived in the city we’d be just as concerned about the children getting run over by a bus or abducted as we are about them being attacked by a crocodile.’
After dinner they said that if we wanted to stand a hope in hell of actually seeing any rhino then it would help considerably if we could find out where they actually were. They suggested that we ask Charles to take us up in the Cessna the next day, and then perhaps we could go out by Landrover again the day after that and see how close we could get to them. They contacted Charles over their battered old field radio, and made the arrangements.
Charles flies his plane the same way my mother drives her car round the country lanes in Dorset. If you didn’t know she had done it invincibly every day of her life for years you would be hiding in the footwell gibbering with fear instead of just smiling glassily and humming `Abide With Me’.
Charles is a thin and slightly intense man, and also rather shy. Sometimes you think you must have done something which has mightily offended him, and then realise that the sudden silence is only because he can’t think of anything to say next and has given up. In the plane, though, there is so much to see that he is very talkative and also, of course, very hard to hear.
He had to say it three times before I finally believed that I wasn’t dreaming it – he said he just wanted to count the eggs in the nest of a saddlebilled stork at the top of the tree we were fast approaching.
He banked sharply over the top of the tree, and then appeared to put the hand brake on while he leant out of the window and counted the eggs. The cockpit was thick with the sound of ‘Abide With Me’ as the plane seemed slowly to start tumbling sideways out of the sky. He seemed to miscount twice before he was happy with the final tally, whereupon he hauled his head back through the window, turned to ask if we were doing all right, then turned back, refastened the window, and at last scooped the plane back up into the air moments before death.
From the air, the savannah looks like ostrich skin stretched across the land. We passed a small group of elephants nodding and bowing their way across the plains. Charles shouted over his shoulder at us that they have a project in Garamba National Park for training elephants, and have achieved the first major success in this field since Hannibal. African elephants are intelligent but notoriously difficult to train, and in the old Tarzan movies they used to use Indian elephants and stick bigger ears on them. The ultimate aim of this project is to use elephants on anti-poaching patrols, and also on tourist safaris. Once again, tourist revenue is seen as the one certain way of ensuring the future survival of the threatened wildlife of the area.
We wheeled around in ever increasing circles, looking out for anything resembling a rhinoceros. From up here they would clearly be much easier to distinguish from termite hills, if only for the sheer speed with which they move.
Suddenly there was one.
And there, as we passed a screen of trees, was another.
There, in fact, were another two: a mother and daughter, quite close to us moving rapidly across the plain like trotting boulders. Even seen from a couple of hundred feet in the air the sense of massive weight on the move is extraordinarily impressive. As we crossed the steady path the mother and daughter were keeping and wheeled round back over them, descending as we did so, it felt as if we were participating in a problem of three-body physics, swinging round in the gravitational pull of the rhinos.
We took another pass over them, lower and slower, directly following their path, coining as close to them as we could, and this time the sense was of taking part in military manoeuvres in which we were giving air cover to some monstrous cavalry hurtling across the plain.
Shouting above the noise in the cockpit we asked Charles if it didn’t worry the rhinos having us flying so close to them.
`Not half as much as it worries you,’ he said. `No, it doesn’t bother them at all really. A rhino isn’t scared of anything very much and is only really interested in what things smell like. We fly down low over them pretty regularly to get a good look at them, identify them, see what they’re up to, check that they’re healthy and so on. We know them all pretty well, and we’d know if they were upset about anything.’
I was struck again by something that was becoming a truism on these travels, that seeing animals such as these in a zoo was absolutely no preparation for seeing them in the wild – great beasts moving through seemingly limitless space, utterly the masters of their own world.
Or almost the masters. The next rhino we found, a mile or so further on, was engaged in a stand-off with a hyena. The hyena was circling warily round the rhino while the rhino peered at it myopically over its lowered horns. A rhino’s eyesight is not particularly acute, and if it wants to get a good look at something it will tend to look at it first with one eye and then with the other – its eyes are on either side of its skull and it can’t see straight ahead. Charles pointed out as we flew over that this rhino had had problems with hyenas before: half of its tail was missing.g.
By now I was beginning to feel seriously airsick and we started to head back The purpose of the trip was just to find out where the rhinos were, and out of a total wild population of twenty-two rhinos, we had seen altogether eight. Tomorrow we would set out overland to see if we could get close to one on ground level.
One of the things that people who don’t know anything about white rhinoceroses find most interesting about them is their colour.
It isn’t white.
Not even remotely. It’s a rather handsome dark grey. Not even a sort of pale grey that might arguably pass as an off-white, just plain dark grey. People therefore assume that zoologists are either perverse or colour-blind, but it’s not that, it’s that they’re illiterate. `White’ is a mistranslation of the Afrikaans word ‘weit’ meaning `wide’, and it refers to the animal’s mouth, which is wider than that of the black rhino. By one of those lucky chances the white rhino is in fact a very slightly lighter shade of dark grey than the black rhino. If the white rhino had actually been darker than the black rhino people would just get cross, which would be a pity since there are many better things to get cross about regarding the white rhino than its colour, such as what happens to its horns.
There is a widespread myth about what people want rhino horns for – in fact two myths. The first myth is that ground rhino horn is an aphrodisiac. This, I think it’s safe to say, is just what it appears to be – superstition. It has little to do with any known medical fact, and probably a lot to do with the fact that a rhino’s horn is a big sticky-up hard thing.
The second myth is that anyone actually believes the first myth.
It was probably the invention of a journalist, or at best a misunderstanding. It’s easy to see where the idea came from when you consider the variety of things that the Chinese, for example, believe to be aphrodisiacs, which include the brain of a monkey, the tongue of a sparrow, the human placenta, the penis of a white horse, rabbit hair from old brushes, and the dried sexual parts of a male tiger soaked in a bottle of European brandy for six months. A big sticky-up hard thing like a rhinoceros horn would seem to be a natural for such a list, though it’s perhaps harder to understand, in this context, why grinding the thing down would be such an attractive idea. The fact is that there is no actual evidence to suggest that the Chinese do believe rhino horn to be an aphrodisiac. The only people who do believe it are people who’ve read somewhere that other people believe it, and are ready and willing to believe anything they hear that they like the sound of.
There is no known trade in rhino horn for the purposes of aphrodisia. (This, like most things, is no longer strictly true. It is now known that there are a couple of people in Northern India who use it, but they only do it to annoy.)oy.)
Much horn is used in traditional medicine in the Far East , but a major part of the trade in rhino horn is caused by something much more absurd, and it’s this: fashion. Dagger handles made of rhinoceros horn are an extremely fashionable item of male jewellery in the Yemen . That’s it: costume jewellery.jewellery.
Let’s see the effect of this fashion.
Northern white rhinos were unknown to the western world until their discovery in 1903. At the time, there were enormous numbers of them in five different countries: Chad , the Central African Republic , Sudan , Uganda and Zaire . But their discovery spelt disaster, because unfortunately for the northern white rhino it has two horns – which makes it doubly attractive to poachers. The front one, the longest, averages two feet in length; the world record-holder had an incredible horn six feet long and, sadly, was worth some US$5,000.adly, was worth some US$5,000.
By 1980, all but 1,000 had been killed by poachers. There were still no serious efforts to protect them and, five years later, the population reached an all-time low of just thirteen animals, all living in Garamba National Park . The animal was on the verge of extinction.extinction.
Until 1984, Garamba’s 5,000 square kilometres were under the protection of a small number of staff. These staff were untrained, often unpaid, had no vehicles and no equipment. If a poacher wanted to kill a rhino, all he had to do was turn up. Even local Zairois occasionally killed the rhinos to fashion small pieces of horn into rings which they believed would protect them against poison and harmful people. But most of the horn was taken by heavily armed Sudanese poachers. It was taken back to Sudan and, from there, entered the illegal international marketplace.place.
The situation in Garamba has improved dramatically since then, with the rehabilitation project which began in 1984. There is now a total of 246 trained staff, with eleven vehicles, a light aircraft, permanent guard posts throughout the park and mobile patrols all in radio contact with one another. Two rhinos poached in May 1984, immediately after the rehabilitation work began, were the last to be killed in the park. The poacher was caught and imprisoned, but later allowed to escape. Attitudes have changed so much now that it is unlikely he would be allowed to escape again. Other species are still poached, but intensive protection over the past five years has at last begun to have an effect. In fact, there have been a number of rhino births and the population now stands at a slightly better twenty-two.
An astounding feature of the situation is this: the eventual value of a rhino horn, by the time it has been shipped out of Africa and fashioned into a piece of tasteless costume jewellery for some rich young Yemeni to strut around and pull girls with, is thousands of US dollars. But the poacher himself, the man who goes into the park and risks his life to shoot the actual rhino which all of this time, effort and money is going into protecting, will get about ten or twelve or fifteen dollars for the horn. So the difference between life or death for one of the rarest and most magnificent animals in the world is actually about twelve dollars.
It’s easy to ask – in fact I asked this – why not simply pay the poachers more not to kill the animals? The answer, of course, is very simple. If one person offers a poacher, say, twenty-five dollars not to shoot an animal, and then someone else offers him twelve dollars to shoot it, the poacher is liable to see that he can now earn thirty-seven dollars from the same animal. While the horns continue to command the amount of money they do, there is always going to be an incentive for someone to go and earn that money. So the question really is this. How do you persuade a young Yemeni that a rhino horn dagger is not a symbol of your manhood but a signal of the fact that you need such a symbol?
Recently, there have been two separate, though unconfirmed, sightings of northern white rhinos in Southern National Park, Sudan. But the current political situation there means that very little can be done about them and, effectively, the only animals with any chance of survival have been restricted to Garamba since the mid-eighties. They are still in a precarious position, but there is one ray of hope: experience with the southern white rhino.
Northern white rhinos and southern white rhinos belong to the same species but their populations have been separated for such a long time that they have evolved a range of ecological and behavioural differences. More importantly, the genetic differences are so great that scientists consider them .to be separate sub-species and, consequently, believe they have lived apart for more than two million years. Nowadays, they are permanently separated by a thousand miles of African rain forest, woodland and savannah.
Without experience, the two animals are virtually impossible to tell apart – though the northern generally holds its head higher than its southern counterpart and their body proportions are also rather different.
At the time of its discovery, the northern white was by far the commoner of the two. The southern white had been discovered nearly a century earlier but, by 1882, it was considered to be extinct. Then, at the turn of the century, a small population of about eleven animals was discovered in Umfolozi, Zululand . All the stops were pulled out to save them from extinction and, by the mid-sixties, their number had increased to about five hundred. It was enough to begin translocating individuals to other parks and reserves and to other countries. There are now more than 5,000 southern rhinos throughout southern Africa , and they are out of immediate danger. danger.
The point is that we are not too late to save the northern white rhino from extinction.
As the sun began to go down we went and sat by the local hippos. At a wide bend in the river the water formed a deep, slow moving pool, and lying in the pool, grunting and bellowing were about two hundred hippopotamuses. The opposite bank was very high, so that the pool formed a sort of natural amphitheatre for the hippos to sing in, and the sound reverberated around us with such startling clarity that I don’t suppose there can be a better place in the whole of Africa for hearing a hippo grunt. The light was becoming magically warm and long, and I sat watching them for an hour, aglow with amazement. The hippos nearest to us watched with a kind of uncomprehending belligerence such as we had become used to at the airports in Zaire , but most of them simply lay there with their heads up on their neighbours’ rumps wearing huge grins of oafish contentment. I expect I was wearing something similar myself.yself.
Mark said that he had never seen anything like it in all his travels in Africa . Garamba, he said, was unique for the freedom it allowed you to get close to the animals and away from other people. There is, of course, another side to this. We heard recently that, a few weeks later, someone sitting in the exact same spot where we were sitting had been attacked and killed by a lion.ion.
That night, as I turned in for the night, I discovered something very interesting. When I had first checked into my but the day before I had noticed that the mosquito net above the bed was tied up into a huge knot. I say `noticed’ in the loosest possible sense of the word. It was tied up in a knot, and when I went to bed that night I had had to untie it to drape it over the bed. Further than that I had paid no attention to it whatsoever.
Tonight I discovered why it is that mosquito nets get tied up into knots. The reason is embarrassingly simple, and I can hardly bear to admit what it is. It’s to stop the mosquitoes getting into it.
I climbed into bed and gradually realised that there were almost as many mosquitoes inside the net as outside. The action of draping the net over myself was almost as much use as the magnificent fence which the Australians built across the whole of their continent to keep the rabbits out when there were already rabbits on both sides of the fence. Nervously I shone my torch up into the dome of the net. It was black with mozzies.
I tried to brush them out, and lost a few of them. I unhooked the net from the ceiling and flapped it vigorously round the room. That woke them up and got them interested. I turned the thing completely inside out, took it outside and flapped it about a lot more till it seemed that I had got rid of most of them, took it back into the room, hung it up and climbed into bed. Almost immediately I was being bitten crazy. I shone my torch up into the dome. It was still black with mozzies. I took the net down again, laid it out on the floor, and tried to scrape the mosquitoes off with the edge of my portable computer, which the batteries had fallen out of, thus making it useful for little else. Didn’t work. I tried it again with the edge of my writing pad. That was a bit more effective, but it meant that I was trying to write between dozens of smeared mosquito corpses for the next few days. I hung the net up again and went to bed. It was still full of mosquitoes, all of which were now in a vigorous biting mood. They buzzed and zizzed around me in an excited rage.
I took the net down. I laid it on the floor and I jumped on it. I continued jumping on it for a good ten minutes, till I was certain that every square centimetre of the thing had been jumped on at least six times, and then I jumped on it some more. Then I found a book and smacked it with the book all over. Then I jumped on it some more, smacked it with the book again, took it outside, shook it out, took it back in, hung it up and climbed into bed underneath it The net was full of very angry mosquitoes. It was by now about four in the morning and by the time Mark came to wake me at about six to go looking for rhinoceroses I was not in the mood for wildlife, and said so. He laughed in his cheery kind of way and offered me half of a tinned sausage for breakfast. I took that and a mug of powdered coffee, and walked down to the riverbank which was about fifty yards away. I stood ankle deep in the cool quietly flowing water, listening to the early morning noises of the birds and insects, and biting the sausage, and after a while began to be revived by the dawning realisation of how absurd I must look.
Charles arrived in the Landrover along with Annette Lanjouw and we piled our stuff for the day into it and set off.
As we bumped and rattled our way out into the savannah once more, deep into the area where we had seen the rhino the previous day from the plane, I asked in a very casual, matter of fact, just out of interest kind of way, whether or not rhino were actually dangerous.
Mark grinned and shook his head. He said we’d be very unlucky indeed to be hurt by a rhino. This didn’t seem to me entirely to answer the question, but I didn’t like to press the point. I was only asking out of mild curiosity.
Mark went on anyway.
`You hear a lot of stuff that simply isn’t true,’ he said, ‘or at least is blown up out of all proportion, just because it sounds dramatic. It really irritates me when people pretend that animals they meet are dangerous, just so it makes them seem brave or intrepid. It’s like fishermen’s tales. A lot of early explorers were really terrible exaggerators. They would double or quadruple the length of the snakes they saw. Perfectly innocent anacondas became sixty foot monsters that lay in wait to crush people to death. All complete rubbish. But the anaconda’s reputation has been damaged for good.’
`But rhinos are perfectly safe??
‘Oh, more or less. I’d be a bit wary of black rhinos if I was on foot. They have got a reputation for unprovoked aggression which I suppose they’ve pretty much earned themselves. One black rhino in Kenya caught me off’ guard once, and severely dented a friend’s car which I’d borrowed for the day. He’d only had it a few weeks. His previous car, which I had borrowed for the weekend, had been written off by a buffalo. It was all very embarrassing. Hello, have we found something?mething?
Charles had brought the Landrover to a halt and was peering at the horizon through his binoculars.
‘OK,’ he said. ‘I think I can see one. About two miles away.’
We each looked through our own binoculars, following his directions. The early morning air was still cool, and there was no heat haze frying the horizon. Once I had worked out which group of trees in front of a tussocky hill it was we were meant to be looking just to the left and slightly in front of I eventually found myself looking at something that looked suspiciously like the termite hill we had almost killed ourselves tracking down two days earlier. It was very still.
‘Sure it’s a rhino? I asked, politely.
`Yup,’ said Charles. ‘Dead sure. We’ll stay parked here. They have very keen hearing and the noise of the Landrover would send it away if we drove any closer. So we walk.’
We gathered our cameras together and walked.
‘Quietly,’ said Charles.
We walked more quietly.
It was difficult to be that quiet struggling through a wide, marsh-filled gully, with our boots and even our knees farting and belching in the mud. Mark entertained us by whispering interesting facts to us.
‘Did you know,’ he said, ‘that bilharzia is the second most common disease in the world after tooth decay?
‘No, really?’ I said.d.
‘It’s very interesting,’ said Mark. ‘It’s a disease you get from wading through infected water. Tiny snails breed in the water and they act as hosts to tiny parasitic worms that latch on to your skin. When the water evaporates they burrow in and attack your bladder and intestines. You’ll know if you’ve got it, because it’s like really bad flu with diarrhoea, and you also piss blood.’
‘I think we’re meant to be keeping quiet,’ I said.
Once we were on the other side of the gully we regrouped again behind some trees and Charles checked on the wind direction and gave us some further instructions.
‘You need to know something about the way that a rhino sees his world before we go barging into it,’ he whispered to us. ‘They’re pretty mild and inoffensive creatures for all their size and horns and everything. His eyesight is very poor and he only relies on it for pretty basic information. If he sees five animals like us approaching him he’ll get nervous and run off. So we have to keep close together in single file. Then he’ll think we’re just one animal and he’ll be less worried.’
‘A pretty big animal,’ I said.
`That doesn’t matter. He’s not afraid of big animals, but numbers bother him. We also have to stay down wind of him, which means that from here we’re going to have make a wide circle round him. His sense of smell is very acute indeed. In fact it’s his most important sense. His whole world picture is made up of smells. He “sees” in smells. His nasal passages are in fact bigger than his brain.’
From here it was at last possible to discern the creature with the naked eye. We were a bit more than half a mile from it. It was standing out in the open looking, at moments when it was completely still, like a large outcrop of rock. From time to time its long sloping head would wave gently from side to side and its horns would bob slightly up and down as, mildly and inoffensively, it cropped the grass. This was not a termite hill.
We set off again, very quietly, constantly stopping, ducking and shifting our position to try and stay down wind of the creature, while the wind, which didn’t care one way or the other, constantly shifted its position too. At last we made it to another small clump of trees about a hundred yards from the creature, which so far had seemed to be undisturbed by our approach. From here, though, it was just open ground between us and it. We stayed for a few minutes to watch and photograph it. If any closer approach did in fact scare it off, then this was our last opportunity. The animal was turned slightly away from us, continuing gently to crop the grass. At last the wind was well established in our favour and, nervously, quietly, we set off again.
It was a little like that game we play as children, in which one child stands facing the wall, while the others try to creep up behind and touch her. She will from time to time suddenly turn around, and anyone she catches moving has to go all the way to the back and start again. Generally she won’t be in a position to impale anyone she doesn’t like the look of on a three foot horn, but in other respects it was similar.
The animal is, of course, a herbivore. It lives by grazing. The closer we crept to it, and the more monstrously it loomed in front of us, the more incongruous its gentle activity seemed to be. It was like watching a JCB excavator quietly getting on with a little weeding.
At about forty yards’ distance, the rhinoceros suddenly stopped eating and looked up. It turned slowly to look at us, and regarded us with grave suspicion while we tried very hard to look like the smallest and most inoffensive animal we could possibly be. It watched us carefully but without apparent comprehension, its small black eyes peering dully at us from either side of its horn. You can’t help but try and follow an animal’s thought processes, and you can’t help, when faced with an animal like a three ton rhinoceros with nasal passages bigger than its brain, but fail.
The world of smells is now virtually closed to modern man. Not that we haven’t got a sense of smell – we sniff our food or wine, we occasionally smell a flower, and can usually tell if there’s a gas leak, but generally it’s all a bit of a blur, and often an irrelevant or bothersome blur at that. When we read that Napoleon wrote to Josephine on one occasion, `Don’t wash – I’m coming home,’ we are simply bemused and almost think of it as deviant behaviour. We are so used to thinking of sight, closely followed by hearing, as the chief of the senses that we find it hard to visualise (the word itself is a giveaway) a world which declares itself primarily to the sense of smells. It’s not a world our mental processors can resolve – or, at least, they are no longer practised in resolving it. For a great many animals, however, smell is the chief of the senses. It tells them what is good to eat and what is not (we go by what the packet tells us and the sell-by date). It guides them towards food that isn’t within line of sight (we already know where the shops are). It works at night (we turn on the light). It tells them of the presence and state of mind of other animals (we use language). It also tells them what other animals have been in the vicinity and doing what in the last day or two (we simply don’t know, unless they’ve left a note). Rhinoceroses declare their movements and their territory to other animals by stamping in their faeces, and then leaving smell traces of themselves wherever they walk, which is the sort of note we would not appreciate being left.
When we smell something slightly unexpected, if we can’t immediately make sense of it and it isn’t particularly bothersome, we simply ignore it, and this is probably equivalent to the rhino’s reaction to seeing us. It appeared not to make any particular decision about us, but merely to forget that it had a decision to make. The grass presented it with something infinitely richer and more interesting to its senses, and the animal returned to cropping it.
We crept on closer. Eventually we got to within about twenty-five yards, and Charles signalled us to stop. We were close enough. Quite close enough. We were in fact astoundingly close to it.
The animal measured about six feet high at its shoulders, and sloped down gradually towards its hindquarters and its rear legs, which were chubby with muscle. The sheer immensity of every part of it exercised a fearful magnetism on the mind. When the rhino moved a leg, just slightly, huge muscles moved easily under its heavy skin like Volkswagens parking.
The noise of our cameras seemed to distract it and it looked up again, but not in our direction. It appeared not to know what to think about this, and after a while returned to its grazing.
The light breeze that was blowing towards us began to shift its direction, and we shifted with it, which brought us round more to the front of the rhino. This seemed to us, in our world dominated by vision, to be an odd thing to do, but so long as the rhino could not smell us, it could take or leave what we looked like. It then turned slightly towards us itself, so that we were suddenly crouched in full. view of the beast. It seemed to chew a little more thoughtfully, but for a while paid us no more mind than that. We watched quietly for fully three or four minutes, and even the sound of our cameras ceased to bother the animal. After a few minutes we became a little more careless about noise, and started to talk to each other about our reactions, and now the rhino became a little more restive and uneasy. It stopped grazing, lifted its head and looked at us steadily for about a minute, still uncertain what to do.
Again, I imagine myself, sitting here in my study writing this through the afternoon and gradually realising that a slight smell I had noticed earlier is still there, and beginning to wonder if I should start to look for other clues as to what it could be. I would start to look for something, something I could see: a bottle of something that’s fallen over, or something electrical that’s overheating. The smell is simply the clue that there’s something I should look for.
For the rhino, the sight of us was simply a clue that there was something he should sniff for, and he began to sniff the air more carefully, and to move around in a slow careful arc. At that moment the wind began to move around and gave us away completely. The rhino snapped to attention, turned away from us, and hurtled off across the plain like a nimble young tank.
We had seen our northern white rhinoceros, and it was time to go home.
The next day Charles flew us back across the ostrich skin savannah to Bunia airport where we were due once more to pick up a missionary flight returning to Nairobi . The plane was already there waiting and a representative from the airline assured us, against the evidence of all our previous experience, that there would be no problems, we could go straight to the plane. Then, a few minutes later we were told that we would just have to go quickly to the immigration office. We could leave our bags. We went to the immigration office, where we were told that we should bring our bags. We brought our bags. Expensive looking camera equipment.pment.
We were then confronted by a large Zairois official in a natty blue suit whom we had noticed earlier hanging around watching us take our baggage out of Charles’s plane. I had had the feeling then that he was sizing us up for something.
He examined our passports for a goodish long time before acknowledging our presence at all, then at last he looked up at us, and a wide smile crept slowly across his face.
‘You entered the country,’ he asked, ‘at Bukavu?
In fact he said it in French, so we made a bit of a meal of understanding him, which was something that experience had taught us to do. Eventually we admitted that, insofar as we had understood the question, yes, we had entered at Bukavu.
`Then,’ he said, quietly, triumphantly, `you must leave from Bukavu.’
He made no move to give us back our passports.
We looked at him blankly.
He explained slowly. Tourists, he said, had to leave the country from the same port by which they had entered. Smile.
We utterly failed to understand what he had said. This was almost true anyway. It was the most preposterous invention. He still held on to our passports. Next to him a young girl was sitting, studiously copying down copious information from other visitors’ passports, information that would almost certainly never see the light of day again.
We stood and argued while our plane sat out on the Tarmac `waiting to take off to Nairobi, but the official simply sat and held our passports. We knew it was nonsense. He knew we knew it was nonsense. That was clearly part of the pleasure of it. He smiled at us again, gave us a slow contented shrug, and idly brushed a bit of fluff off the sleeve of the natty blue suit towards the cost of which he clearly expected a major contribution.
On the wall above him, gazing seriously into the middle distance from a battered frame, stood the figure of President Mobuto, resplendent in his leopardskin pillbox hat.