A Year After Zaïre – Part 1

If ever there was a trip in my life that encapsulates the name of this blog “The Unwitting Traveller” – then this is it.

It was 1998 – I was 25.  I was still very naïve in the arena of African Travel, despite having been to Mozambique and Namibia by this point in time.   I was presented with an option of an all-expenses-paid trip to the country formally known as Zaïre.  I wouldn’t earn much, save for the experience I was sure I’d never forget.  I was sold – let the adventure begin!

For once, I sort of kept a journal.  I took photos too, but I wasn’t thinking like a blogger back then, evidently.  My Pentax P30T and I weren’t getting along particularly well, either, judging by the quality of photographs.

Monday 13th July, 1998

Well! Here I am, in Lubumbashi, Zaire (sorry that should read Democratic Republic of Congo) – a mere four hours flight on a Cessna 410 Caravelle from Johannesburg.  We landed about 5 hours ago and my ears are still buzzing from the engine noise.  My reason for being here is to help out as a glorified data capturer on a consultancy mission for a joint venture between ”X Ltd” and Geçamines.  The trip is expected to last a little over a week, which I have been told will be looonnngg enough.

The flight itself took us out over barren landscapes, Lake Kariba and Lusaka.

Lake Kariba

Lake Kariba

Most of the journey was spent reading as there wasn’t much to see otherwise – even from the co-pilot’s seat, which as the only female of the group, I had the privilege of acquiring.  The most interesting part of the journey was as we were coming into land.  There were people and goats still crossing the runway in front of us, for goodness sake!  Hello!!! Get out of the way!!!

[Straight out of an episode of Bush Pilots, I tell ya!]

Lubumbashi Airport

Lubumbashi Airport

On arrival at the airport, it didn’t take long before a small group of locals swarmed upon us, acting official and saying that they would help us etc. etc. – but of course, they could only “help” us if we paid them US dollars.

Our pilot helped off-load our baggage and promptly bade us farewell.  There was no way on this green earth he was leaving his plane unattended to be squeezed for cash.  He handed us paperwork to submit, did his about-turn, and took off.

Inside the terminal building, we hooked up with Battie – our local (and pre-arranged) guide with all the right and necessary connections – who helped us sort out the legalities of our paperwork.  It didn’t stop the authorities confiscating our passports “for inspection purposes” – only making them available for us to collect the following morning.  According to Battie – we got off lightly, only paying US $650 total for our group.  It was a hair-raising experience: much shouting, shoving and grabbing – and that was just by members of our group incensed by what was going on. It didn’t help one bit.

I had recently finished reading “In the footsteps of Mr Kurtz by Michela Wrong, an excellent – if not a slightly depressing read, as I started putting this post together.  I have learned that this was most likely “Article 15” in operation, despite Mobuto having been ousted by Laurent Kabila in 1997.  Article 15 from the Mobuto-era was thoroughly ingrained in the mind-set of millions and still very much the way to do business.

One of the book reviewers puts it thus:

Article 15: Debrouillez-vous – Help yourself“In the Constitution of a region of Zaire that wanted to secede from Mobutu’s Kinshasa government there was an article (article 15) suggesting to anyone who wanted the government’s protection or support to “take care of your own business” (“debrouillez-vous”), which essentially the legal form of Mobutu’s dictum that corruption was OK so long as it wasn’t excessive”

That, explains a lot…

Back to the journal…

The consequence of not having our passports meant we couldn’t drive the 2 hour road trip to Likasi, our intended port of call.  We were forced to overnight at the The Hotel Karavia – a mere US $100 per night, per person [more Article 15 in operation?].

We had been stuck at the airport for an hour [which compared to other experiences I have had in Africa since, is surprisingly short!].  I was overheating in the tropical heat (I still hadn’t acclimatised to African temperatures) and had a dehydration headache threatening to explode in my brain.

I was actually quite glad to be heading to the hotel and not sitting for 2 more hours in transit as per the original schedule.

The hotel itself was ok [in today’s lingo: “meh”].  There was a well-kept pool at the back overlooking a dam known as Lac Kipopo.

Pool at the Hotel Karavia

Pool at the Hotel Karavia

The pool was the hotel’s saving grace as the interior was decidedly retro 60’s-70’s orange décor.  Actually, the hotel had one other saving grace: the malachite pyramid in the foyer. [Oops, no photo]

We spent the remainder of the day, sitting in the lounge, reading, avoiding the glances (in my case – evil stares) from the “ladies of the night/day” and drinking warm bottles of coke.  I nearly made the potentially grave mistake of pouring my coke into the glass with ice.  It was the slightly suspicious looking slice of lemon that reminded me that the ice might be somewhat dodgy too. Only, drinking warm coke is hardly refreshing.

We ate out at a restaurant called L’ Atelier (the workshop, erm..).  On recommendation, I ordered a filet – but for all I know, it could have been cane rat.

Tuesday 14th July, 1998

The sunrise around here is awesome!

Dawn in Lubumbashi

Dawn in Lubumbashi

Today saw the return of our passports.  Phew! There it was; a teeny-tiny stamp acknowledging our entry into the Democratic Republic of Congo.  It took me 3 attempts looking through my passport to find it.

In yesterday’s accounts I forgot to mention the most awful sight I’d witnessed for a very long time.  The Toilet.  Trainspotting’s “The Worst Toilet in Scotland” pales in comparison – and I had to use it. EURGH!

The stench was such that I’ve not been able to smell properly since!  I was so paranoid about anything touching anything in that room that I turned up the cuffs of my jeans several times so that they didn’t dip into the inch-deep “liquid” on the floor.  I also had my camera bag to contend with – and no, there were no hooks on the back of the door to hang it up.  Luckily, I had some toilet paper rolled up in the back pocket of my jeans.  However, when I came to flushing – I realised that there was no flushing mechanism!  The water used to flush this toilet came from a bucket, which a lady (allegedly, the cleaner) threw at the toilet.  Actually, it wasn’t even really water.  The cleaner then wanted money from me to go and fetch more water, the source of which, I cared not to know.

Thankfully the bathroom at the hotel was alright, although I did have trouble fathoming out how the shower switched on.

Back to today: Nice thoughts, nice thoughts – no more thoughts on that toilet… Ah yes, the sunrise – think about how beautiful that was…



This is much better.

Red is the sky that lights up the day

Red is the sky that lights up the day

Good Morning, Lubumbashi!

After a lot of waiting around for things to happen, much like yesterday, we finally left Lubumbashi at about 11am.  We got to Likasi around 1pm.  We passed several road-blocks – mostly set up by kids trying to extract bon-bons [their version of Article 15?] and hoping to sell massive cane-rats that were almost as long as the kids were tall.  Battie shooed them away, and the branches – nay, twigs – were removed from our path.

The hotel, La Ranch, where we were allegedly booked into turned out to be an abandoned run-down dump.  We stopped in at La Scala, but the general consensus, over a lunch of soggy chips, was that this was only slightly better than La Ranch.

Although I was still studying at this point, I had a part-time job in South Africa too.  It was through my part-time boss that I got this gig to the DRC.  He had the foresight to make a recommendation to me for accommodation in Likasi.  We went to investigate and it turned out to be a gem.  A more peaceful setting and building awaited us and with all rooms conveniently vacant, we were instantly housed.

For some reason, I neglected to record its name… but it looks like this.

Excellent Likasi accommodation

Excellent Likasi accommodation

If anyone knows it – please leave a comment!

Finally, at 4pm we went to the Geçamines office to begin discussions with management and request access to the data that we had come to assess.  Despite us believing we had an appointment, they on the other hand did not know we were coming at all; head office in Lubumbashi had neglected to pass on the information.

Nevertheless, and thankfully enough, they will comply with our request – but only tomorrow morning at 8:30am.

To Be Continued…

16 thoughts on “A Year After Zaïre – Part 1

    1. Hi Esmee – you are too kind! It’s amazing what Lightroom and Photoshop can fix. I may have to post some “before and afters” to show what I meant!

  1. I find your blog VERY interesting! Being your living out my dream, kinda. I wish to travel the world taking pictures and journalling my thoughts later to write blogs, columns or maybe a book someday! The details are sketchy. But my parents say that it is unrealistic. That I can’t expect my hobby to take me that far, so my question is- What is your job, and how does it take you to all these amazing places? THANKSAMILLION!
    ❤ Heather

    1. Hi Heather – I’m a geologist. First and foremost came the career – the opportunity to travel was a wonderful accompaniment. I would love to “just travel”, but I wouldn’t have been able to afford it financially. I can see where your parents might have concerns. If you can make your hobby pay then that is wonderful, but for many of us a hobby is just that, a hobby. If you can, find a career that has travel opportunities – there are plenty out there! – Good luck 🙂

  2. What an adventure! Reminds me of my time in Africa. And in China where I am based now for that matter. It is the craziness in the travel that keeps us going, isn’t it. The unexpected, the adventure. Keep on sharing!

    1. Expect the unexpected, and NEVER have high expectations! I think that’s what has been keeping me relatively sane, lately 🙂
      China must be an interesting experience?

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