I arrived in the Central African Republic capital city of Bangui on 27th October at about 9 am with excitement building up inside me. I had never been there before, and I was curious. The 15-minute drive from the airport to the city center was my first experience of Bangui, and the plethora of potholes along the way made it a somewhat uncomfortable one. The roads are wide and had obviously been well planned, but were last repaired eons ago.
Drivers tend to prefer driving on the smoothest portion of the road and ignore basic traffic rules. However, the people were amazingly cheerful and welcoming. The city center was a mixture of corrugated iron structures and ancient, dilapidated colonial-era buildings.
My mission in the country was to see first-hand and learn as much as possible about the Dzanga Sangha Forest Reserve, situated deep in the south-eastern jungles of the Central African Republic. I had been informed that the 550km journey from Bangui to the town of Bayanga, the gateway to the Reserve could be done in 12 hours, so I spent my first day preparing for the trip.
Next day, in a Toyota Landcruiser driven by Issa, my driver and guide, and with supplies of water, soft drinks and other essentials, I was ready to go. Or at least I thought I was. Having worked in the tourism industry for a long time in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, I thought a little expedition into the Central African Republic wouldn’t be so difficult. Little did I know that this trip would be a harrowing 27-hour ordeal.
At 5am we were off, Congolese music blaring from our car stereo. I ate only biscuits although there was an abundance of food along the way. I discovered that people in the area had very unconventional culinary habits. I saw smoked monkey, rats and a myriad of other rodents in addition to smoked elephant meat on sale along the road.
We had long delays due to the bad jungle roads and broken down logging trucks blocking us. Then at about 5pm, with about 250km to go, we got our first puncture. We quickly changed the tire and continued to a little village called Bambi. I got apprehensive, imagining the worst-case scenario. What if something really bad happened? Yes, I did have my medical travel insurance, basic medication and enough money, but what good would they be in the middle of nowhere?
We got our second puncture, and then for the third time got another puncture! With no spare tires left, we parked by the roadside wondering what to do.
It was quickly getting dark and there was no sign of civilization. Luckily for us, a logging truck came by and my driver stopped it and quickly jumped in, to get the tire it fixed in the village of Lopo, some 25 km away. He assured me that it would not take more than an hour.
So there I was, all alone. I was petrified. What if I died here?
Two hours passed. I pray from time to time, but at that moment I prayed like never before. I have never missed my home and family so much. Then I suddenly remembered that I had a full bottle of vodka that I had bought on the plane. If ever there was a time to drink vodka on your own, this was it!
I was pretty relaxed- even merry- on account of the vodka-when I saw two young men, smartly dressed, walking towards me. Delighted by the company, I interrogated them. They told me they worked for a Lebanese diamond miner somewhere in the jungle. They were nice, decent young men, so I told them if they kept me company until my driver returned, I would give them some money and a lift to their destination. So, we stood out there until I saw two motorbikes arrive with my driver and the fixed tire. Happy days!
Eventually we arrived in Bayanga and drove to the little lodge on the shores of Sangha River, a major stream of the great Congo River. Tired and famished, I napped a bit before venturing by canoe downstream,
The Dzanga Sangha Forest Reserve houses an extraordinary array of indigenous fauna and flora. It is also home to indigenous BaAka pygmy tribes. The Reserve offers good opportunities for wildlife viewing and trekking but the most thrilling experiences for me was tracking the Western Lowland Gorilla with the expert BaAka trackers.
A few days earlier, rampaging elephants had killed a few villagers. The outcry prompted the intervention of none other than the president of the republic himself.
So on 2nd November, as I was having breakfast and getting ready to leave on a charter flight to Bangui later that day, I saw two power boats coming towards me. I was the only guest and soon realized I was being joined by President Francois Bozize, his staff and security detail. He initially thought I was American and couldn’t believe it when I told him I was from Rwanda. “Rwandais de Paul Kagame”, he asked incredulously. “Oui Monsieur Le President.”
‘What are you doing here?’, he asked. “I am a tour operator planning to bring a group of American VIP visitors,’ I answered.
We chatted for about 45 minutes during which he asked a lot about Rwanda and how we had managed to achieve so much success in such a short period of time. It was clear that he was impressed by Rwanda’s achievements. When I told him about my journey, he was astounded. He asked me to visit him in Bangui next time I arrived with tourists.
I took a charter flight to Bangui and then flew home. It was an exhilarating experience and one I am keen to replicate, but the road to Bayanga? Never again!