Across the DRC
Ending up at the wrong consulate. Sleeping on a volcano. Gorillas, God and a great adventure. Dominik Mohr hitch-hikes through the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
When I look back at my life until now – as I’m about to do – my encounters with animals draw a very clear picture of my weaknesses.
Maybe it was predestined, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I was born into a family with many talents, but a way with animals wasn’t one of them.
It’s not that we didn’t have any pets! Even before I could walk, my older siblings’ charges generally met with tragic ends after their brief lives. After giving them to a farmer to look after while we were away on holiday, all that was left of my big sister’s three rabbits were the pelts, hanging from a line in his farmyard (my father argues vehemently to this day that he did not agree to this rather unconventional interpretation of hospitality). The fish in our new aquarium quickly worked out how to play very dead.
And Hansi, my sister Steffi’s manic-depressive canary, hanged himself in despair from the bars of his cage.
I myself was desperate for a talking parrot who’d stand by me through thick and thin, but sadly it was not to be. Instead my parents gave me first one, then another cockatiel. I called the first one Hugo and the second Adelheid. Although it later turned out that Hugo was probably a girl and Adelheid a boy, the two of them never got around to laying any eggs. Instead they enjoyed snacking on my books and shitting on my head. I liked them.
When I was still dreaming of a real parrot.
Hugo on my yellow suitcase.
Hugo isn’t alone any more!
One fine summer’s day I put the cage out on the balcony rail, as I often did, so that my two feathered friends could get a bit of sun and fresh air. I meant well, you might say. But then, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, disaster struck: when I came back the cage was lying on the floor, broken in two. They’d both scarpered, never to be seen again.
I could keep going, telling you stories of ailing mice, gasping guineapigs and other abortive attempts at pet ownership. Of the creeping sense of regret that, after my initial enthusiasm, grew stronger year on year as I stared at the animals at the zoo.
But then I’d be getting too far off topic, and somehow I’ve got to find my way back to the subject of this article: a safari.
It may be that an elephant – to pluck one of the wild animals in this story out of the air at random – has little in common with an ordinary pet, let’s say a goldfish, in terms of care. The same goes for a warthog. Or a crocodile. They don’t want you to feed them or cuddle them. They just do their thing.
I get that.
I’m giving my relationship with animals one last chance – and not a small one! I’m talking about nothing less than big game. Giraffes. Zebras. Enormous spiders. I’m heading into the bush – in South Africa.
My eyes are firmly fixed on my goal: a safari in the Singita area of Kruger National Park.
Whether it sorts out my issues with animals remains to be seen.
* * *
Dear reader, I know what you’ve been asking yourself all this time – what you always ask yourself whenever your well-travelled acquaintance starts banging on unasked about his adventures in Africa, which he has somehow managed to survive unscathed once again. That’s right: the guy who calls it a ‘game drive’ rather than a safari, who loves explaining the difference between a field guide and a ranger, and who’s bubbling with simple solutions to ‘Africa’s problems’ once his tongue’s been loosened by a glass of wine. In other words: me. You’re asking:
What the hell is this ‘Big Five’?
It’s the year 1910 AD. All Africa is under European rule… all Africa? Yep, the whole of Africa (apart from Ethiopia). One of the colonial masters’ favourite hobbies is going hunting in the African wilderness with lots of porters and rifles. And ice for the G&Ts at sundown.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Africa was almost completely colonised: seven European states had divided the continent between them.
The country that is now South Africa was ruled by the British.
Since 1898, hunting has been forbidden in the conservation area that today includes Kruger National Park. The park is approximately the size of Israel.
Since the early 2000s, the park has been in the process of expansion through mergers with conservation areas in Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park includes Limpopo National Park in Mozambique and Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe, as well as Kruger.
They called these expeditions safaris, as it’s the Swahili word for journey. Great honour and renown awaited those who took on (and took down) the most dangerous creatures in the savannah: the elephant, the rhinoceros, the buffalo, the lion and the leopard. Size played a part in the selection process, of course, but most of all was excitement.
Shooting a giant hippopotamus, for instance, as it stands in the river yawning every other minute isn’t really much of a sporting achievement.
Why did they hit on exactly these five creatures, and not, say, the equally interesting cheetah? Neither I nor Wikipedia has any idea.
At some point in the last few decades killing everything in Africa that moved fell out of fashion, and the big game hunts became largely bloodless excursions for tourists, who, despite still looking pretty frightening with their giant lenses, are generally harmless (to animals).
What’s remained is the obsession with the Big Five. And the G&Ts, which are served at sundown on evening game drives.
Of course, such big game hunts still exist: for a lot of money, small people can kill big animals. There are specific areas where particular species are acceptable to shoot. It’s not a complete outrage, as there are sound ecological arguments for doing so – but I still find the thought extremely bizarre.
Why would I want to kill this extraordinarily elegant leopard slinking through the grass?
* * *
When it comes to safaris, probably the most famous location is the enormous Kruger National Park in western South Africa. There are a few areas of the park that can be leased to private lodges – for no small amount of money. These concessions are then made available for the exclusive use of the lodges’ guests.
The Singita Game Reserve Lebombo is in the southern part of Kruger National Park, in exactly such a concession. Only five kilometres away, as the crow flies, is a long fence that separates South Africa from Mozambique. A handful of ascetically luxurious lodges sit on a hillside at a generous distance from each other. Thirty metres further down, hippos splash around in the middle of a small river. Ahead of them the surface of the water is broken as a crocodile raises its head, on the lookout for breakfast. On the other bank are a few impalas, trying not to get eaten as they take a drink. The sun rises.
The bungalows in the Singita Lebombo Lodge blend in well with their environment.
In the river below, crocodiles and hippos are splashing around.
Why would anybody want to move from this balcony?
Oh right, that’s why: wildlife in the national park is best explored by Land Rover.
I could sit here forever, soaking up this performance and the magnificent soundtrack of the bush. I’m sitting on my large balcony, a coffee in one hand and my camera in the other. This where I want to stay.
But I’m not staying – the game drive’s starting at half five! Although, to be honest, I’m not sure anything could top this morning.
Ok guys. I’m impressed. Spellbound. Love-struck. I had no idea it would be like this: the epic landscape, the powerful animals, their heart-warming young. I’m scarcely two metres from a pride of lions, gazing in astonishment at baby elephants gambolling around, and breathlessly following a leopard on the prowl.
From time to time I feel as if I’ve been thrust into the primeval, dinosaur-filled world of Jurassic Park (at the beginning of the film, when everything’s still peaceful and the resurrected dinosaurs are cosily grazing and hunting among themselves).
In the film, it doesn’t take long before everything goes to hell in a handbasket. And here in Kruger National Park, disaster is also looming.
Man is a wild and deadly animal.
* * *
‘Last year one of our guides was nearly shot dead by the military. They thought he was a poacher,’ explains our field guide Enos. ‘That’s why we started wearing a white ribbon around our arms when we’re on foot, to show we’re allowed to be here.’
‘What if the poachers do that too?’ I ask.
‘Then we’ll change the colour.’
In the Far East there are people who must be in the depths of despair. They can’t get it up, and have hit on a solution in the form of something with exceptional staying-power: the mighty, upright horn of the rhinoceros. It would be funny if it didn’t have such terrible consequences.
They also believe that the powdered horn cures fever and cancer, and they’re willing to pay a king’s ransom to obtain it, paying up to 80,000 US dollars per kilogram – it’s more expensive than gold.
A poacher will get 3,000 euros for a whole horn of 1 to 10 kilos in weight, an unimaginable sum for many people. In Kruger National Park, rhinos are threatened mainly by poachers from Mozambique. More than half the population of Mozambique lives in complete poverty – and a single horn can change a poacher’s life. In 2013, more than 1,000 rhinos were killed in South Africa alone, in 2014 over 1,200. The military helps the rangers crack down on poaching, but Kruger is almost the size of New Jersey, and the fence between Mozambique and South Africa is more decoration than deterrent.
Even within the Singita concession, rhinos have become scarce.
‘A few years ago, you’d definitely have seen rhinos here,’ Enos tells us. ‘Now it’s very hit and miss – and if we do glimpse one, they run away the moment they catch wind of us. The rhinos know why. Sadly, their fear is justified.’
He and Charles are doing their best to educate people, going into schools in South Africa and showing children what rhinos mean for all of them. ‘Tourists come here to see the rhinoceroses, and tourism is extremely important to the local area in all sorts of ways – obviously for guides and staff at the lodges, but also for many others who profit indirectly.’
We pass a herd of buffalo. The mighty creatures don’t look like they’d suffer fools gladly. Number four of the Big Five! We’re gripped with the desire to complete the set.
In this video you can see why you shouldn’t mess with buffaloes (see minute 1:40 onwards):
But one animal remains elusive: the rhinoceros.
* * *
‘Stay behind me,’ says Enos, explaining the rules. ‘Always stay in a line, and be very quiet. We have to make a wide detour, because rhinos have an excellent sense of smell – we’ve got to approach it from upwind. Their sight, on the other hand, is remarkably bad.’
Man, this is so exciting! When you’re travelling through the park in a car you’re quite safe, even though you’re inches away from lions, elephants and other wild animals. They just see a big car-monster, and pay it little heed.
On foot, however, it’s a different story!
Enos loads his gun with a few of the giant rounds hanging on his belt (‘better safe than sorry,’ he murmurs), and then we’re off. In single file we walk into the grassy savannah, following tracks I can’t see. Again and again we’re brought to a halt by a hand signal, as our tracker Charles checks the direction of the wind and adjusts our direction. A small herd of zebras is standing to our left, making the process that much more difficult, since the animals warn each other of impending danger with cries of alarm. Slowly, we walk through the waist-high grass.
Thorny acacia trees and scrubby bushes block our view, but we’re told to kneel down. And then I spot them! Two rhinoceroses grazing calmly about fifty metres away.
They look so peaceful, so good-natured and a little dopey – if it wasn’t for the enormous horn, decorated with a smaller one immediately above it. They haven’t seen us yet. In fact, they’re actually coming closer!
And then! The wind changes a fraction and one of them raises its head, snuffling, then freezes for a moment before taking to its heels. The other one takes off too (do we really smell that bad?) and soon they’re hidden behind a group of acacias, the zebras sprinting hysterically behind them.
Inspired, we start heading back. We did it: we got the full set.
But it’s disappointing to see how frightened the rhinos are – and they’re completely justified! Every year, thousands of them are slaughtered in the name of Big Business. If it continues, it won’t be long before we’re seeking them in vain: The Last Unicorn.
Me and animals. Yeah, I like them. They may not be all that fond of me, but I like them. Most of all when they’re free, and left to merrily do their thing.
So long as they don’t eat me, it’s all good.
I’ll simply leave them where they belong, and keep visiting them. Goodbye, rhinoceros, and see you soon!
And by the way: later we found a lot of happy rhinos in a small, fenced-in national park in Swaziland. You should come and check it out!
* * *
Singita operates 12 lodges and camps, each an absolutely stunning experience, in five regions across three countries in Africa. If you have the money: It’s worth it!
SANParks manages the national parks of South-Africa. It offers many accommodation possibilities in Kruger NP, from simple camp-sites to luxury bungalows.