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Gorillas in Zaire

Ten or fifteen miles out of town was the entrance to the national park: “Parc National des Virunga.” One of the last sanctuaries for the nearly extinct mountain gorillas.

Everybody in the hostel in Kisoro, western Uganda, said the photo was the spitting image, $10 was the asking price. The doors that it opened were 10% off entrance fees to any national park in the what was then, in 1991, Zaire. So I came to own a resident I.D. pass. I don’t recall my alias but I was now a Norwegian missionary living and working in Kinshasa, Zaire. A French speaking country, my Norwegian or French weren’t up to much. But I did possess a white long sleeve shirt and Australian bush hat that I felt would convey the missionary angle nicely.

The black market was rife in these countries. Changing U.S. Dollars or Pound Sterling on the street, which was a lot less time consuming than in a bank, you could quite easily achieve three or even four times the bank rate. The more you changed the better the rate. But to do this you had to have undisclosed funds, as a currency declaration form was to be completed each time you crossed a border. This was endorsed when you changed money in a bank and cross checked when you left at the border, if things didn’t add up, bribes were payable. Situations arose where I had been in a country for a month and only spent $100 according to my declaration form. We all had cunning places to hide money. The girls would put it in their hair bands and I took to rolling it up in my shirt sleeves. But first I had to learn my lesson….

There were no buses to the border with Zaire, if there was a group of you or you were feeling flush you could hire a pick-up. I opted to walk the five or six miles out of Kisoro down a winding dusty track with the Rwenzori mountain range for a back drop, it wasn’t so bad. When the out of place red and white striped road barrier and customs house did appear, the warnings I had been told flooded back. I was ushered in to have my passport examined.

The customs officer was cross-eyed; I’d heard about him way back in Nairobi. His subordinate waited outside. One of his tricks was to get you to change money at a very poor rate. There were no banks in this town and you had to pay for the bus or truck to where there was one, so unless you brought Zaire’s with you…you were at his mercy. He rushed me to fill in the currency declaration form, mentally deducting $150 to change on the street. I declared and signed. Mistake.

Pointing at my money belt, he wanted conformation. With everything scattered across his desk, he didn’t even ask for an explanation to the I.D. pass in someone else’s name, not that I could have offered one. He just counted the money, it was $150 over. His eye’s lit up and focused somewhere over my left shoulder as he spoke to me. This was undeclared money, my form said so. No one but us two knew it existed. The cogs were working in his head. Pocketing $50 he gave me the rest back. Lesson learnt, I would roll the money up in my sleeves from now on.

Meeting back up with three Australians I’d traveled with in Uganda, the next day we were waiting at the edge of town for any vehicle going south to Goma. The roads in Zaire were positively the worst in Africa, I didn’t see a piece of tarmac for my whole visit. Once in Goma our plan was to take the ferry to Bukavu on Lake Kivu. But as best laid plans often are, it was scuppered. Each morning we would leave the Catholic missionary where we were staying (Goma didn’t have hostels) and be told at the lake shore that doubled as the ferry terminal to come back tomorrow. On the second day we were informed no ferries for two days. With little to do I decided to put my I.D. pass to the test.

Ten or fifteen miles out of town was the entrance to the national park: “Parc National des Virunga.” One of the last sanctuaries for the nearly extinct mountain gorillas. Taking just a camera, sleeping bag and a few packets of cigarettes with which to smooth over military check points, one of the Aussies and I headed out.

There was no gate or entrance to speak of, just a stone obelisk about twenty feet tall where the truck dropped us off. An armed park warden found us and took us to an administration hut. This was sparsely furnis

Justin Pushman