Democratic Republic of Congo is not on the possible holiday destinations list of many people. Most governments recommend against any travel there for a plethora of reasons, from warlords & violent militia to Ebola and other infectious diseases.
Getting a visa is not easy and if you are successful achieving that, getting around is even harder. Such destinations are excluded from standard travel insurance, so you will need to get tailored, expensive cover. Not many airlines fly there (not a lot of demand) so fares are expensive and there is little to no tourist infrastructure in country.
We’d been invited to visit Garamba National Park, situated in the North East of DRC, on the countries border with South Sudan and the Central Africa Republic. It is famous in conservation for being one of the very first nature reserves on the whole of the continent of Africa. Its infamous for having an elephant population that has crashed from over 20,000 to 1,000 in the last decades and having the now (all but) extinct Northern White Rhino wiped from the park.
Flying into Entebbe in Uganda we switched to a smaller 20 seater twin-prop plane to take us to the border near Arua in the North-West of the country. We sat on the tarmac waiting to leave for over an hour, one of the pilots turning to tell us it was raining heavily at the destination so they were witing for it to clear as “its a dirt strip and if its not raining we have less chance of dying.”
90 minutes of bouncing around in the air followed by 30 secounds of skidding around on the dirt strip and we were out in the fresh air, beathing signs of relief. The border was a short drive away and never has a border crossing been more stark – a smooth tarmac road ending at a metal barrier, faced with a rope tied across the road on 2 poles and a dirt road stretch off into the DRC.
Another flight, this time in the Park’s Cessna. For the first minutes we saw small villages and tracks. Then nothing. No roads, no huts, no nothing, just forest. In places you could see where it had been cleared but the vast majority was just wilderness. And then we got to Garamba itself.
The Park boundary was a river, Park HQ being just outside the Park itself. It was obvious where the heart of the park was, as open grassland stretched away, presumed to be have been created in the wilderness by centuries of foraging and feeding by large herds of elephants. Now the elephants are gone, so the trees are creeping back.
We were staying in staff bungalows down by the river, meals and recreation taken in a lovely lodge build nearby for tourists that have never apeared. Each night we had to walk the 100 metres back to our bungalows using our phone torches, clapping to scare away the numerous hippos who grazed all around. Mosquito nets were then securely tucked in around the bed to keep the large spiders that roamed the thatch above from falling in the night. The hippos worried me less.
During the days we were taken to see the rangers and their dogs at work on roadblocks, trying to keep poachers away from the park boundaries. The roads to be blocked were little more that muddy tracks, despite it officially being part of the Cairo to Kinshassa Highway.
We travelled out deep into the park to watch the dogs practicing their tracking skills and flew low on wildlife reconnaissance flights looking for the rare Kordofan Giraffe.
The rangers and staff were hospitable, friendly and heroic. Before we left the ranger in charge of the anti-poaching dog kennels at Garamba wanted to thank us. It was money from our conservation charity that had built the centre and paid for 6 dogs, unlocking additional funding from the EU for two dogs to make it a full compliment.
“All of us here,” he said in excellent English, “would like to thank everybody at Explorers Against Extinction, together with their junior partner the EU for paying for all this,” He waved his hands around the kennel yard and training area.
We smiled and looked at each other. It was worth the trip for that alone.
Robert Ferguson is a Trustee of the UK Conservation Charity Explorers Against Extinction (Reg. No. 1177505). PureTravel is proud to support their work by donating 100% of their profits to them.