Hotel Mweso, near Muhongozi R., approx. 1a°S, Zaïre, 16.7.77


I have finally overcome the numerous obstacles and have put pen to paper. We are camping the night in the grounds of this "hotel", surrounded by beautiful hills, thatched cottages, tea and banana plantations and beaming, squealing, inquisitive blacks. We crossed the equator yesterday but because we were on a detour road (not worthy of the name of "road") we saw no indication of it. However I feel as though I'm walking the right way up again and there are lots and lots of gum trees. We slept last night a few km from the equator at over 2000m, and found it freezing cold.

It is two days since we burst out of the jungle after Mambasa into this extremely interesting hill-country and left behind us all the pygmies together with lots of our clothes (exchanged for bows and arrows, pipes, combs etc.) We are already into the Swahili-speaking area: "hello" sounds very like "Jumbo", which seems a funny sort of greeting for all the pygmies one meets. They really are v. little (4-5 ft.) and some of them really only wear loincloths and they really go hunting with little bows and arrows.

We saw them constructing a leaf-hut village, which they usually place within striking distance of negro villages. They seem quite dependent on the negroes in many ways, since they are so primitive, and are exploited shamelessly by them. We had reason to learn this at the Station de Capture de l'Epulu where we also paid through our heads to see their collection of okapis - the strange zebra-giraffe-like animal on the stamp, found only in the Zaïre jungle. Like a platypus, it looks as though it has been stitched together. It has giraffe-like knobs on its head, big ears, a glossy velvet coat and those strange zebra markings on its legs.

The same zoo-keepers charged us 1 zaïre/head to visit the pygmies "in the forest". They then took us 200 yards up the road to where the little people were building a new village and we discovered they were being paid nothing and quite naturally wanted money for photographs. Actually they are much more interested in clothes (T-shirts, underwear etc.) than in money.

My last instalment left our heroes stranded on the banks of the Ubangi River at Bangassou, waiting for permission to leave Central Africa. This was obtained with a bribe and our happy release from ECA was effected by paddling across the river with the truck battery and diesel to bring back the rickety old ferry. Aspirin tablets all round, as usual, delighted the crew. We had another 3 ferries before Kisangani, one only powered by poles and paddles to the beat of tom-toms. They also dropped a drawbridge into the water with one of our companions and his expensive new Pentax camera.

[Splodge. Sorry about the African bug which came to this gruesome end.]

Zaïre, on the whole, has been very enjoyable. The people are more pleasant than in the ECA and the scenery is more varied. There are lots of ruined buildings, obviously left by the Belgians, and some enormous cathedral-like churches in good repair (we've stayed in a number of mission stations, still in full swing with Belgians – for the most part – in charge). The ordinary people seem to bear no grudge over the past. At the start, the villagers seemed poorer but quite happy: more topless women, still lots of enormous goitres, innumerable pineapples growing by the road (do you know what the plant looks like? I had forgotten), which the villagers were prepared to swap for one cigarette or an empty food can. Apart from those and bananas there was nothing (not even bread) to be bought in the shops (we were reduced to making our own bread).

Perhaps it was just as well, since there was nowhere to change money until Kisangani, where the black market flourishes amongst the Indians and Greeks etc. Official rate: $1 = Zaïre 0.85; black market $1 = Zaïre 2! Things seemed quite cheap at that rate, esp. beer at 35 makuta (35/100 of Z 1)/bottle and restaurant food. We had some excellent châteaubriands etc. at very low prices, though it's true half our people came down with illnesses of one sort or another.

We found another EO group (northbound) in the yard of the Greek-run hotel in Kisangani where we camped and had to put up with another drunken (and malarial) NZ driver and some abominably vulgar Australians etc. and snore- and shout-filled nights etc. etc. At least there were a couple of gentlemanly Italians on board and in the camping area. Had spaghetti at midnight in traditional fashion – a delight to all true and honorary Italians.

Haggled for hours on end for a few objects in ivory at Kisangani shops where these things are worked. They claim there are still quite a lot of elephants in the jungle, even near K. Crossed the Congo R. (now Zaïre River in Zaïre) in a local "ferry" and saw broken-down hulks of colonial buildings. There is a mission there where a number of nuns, taken as hostages, were murdered in the tribal conflicts of 1960. The river is very wide and quite fast-flowing. It is fed from both northern and southern hemispheres and therefore has a constant flow, since wet seasons alternate.

The roads are pretty slow in parts at this time of year, but we have only been stuck twice – fairly easy to dig out. Perhaps unwisely, we bathe still at times in rivers – found one enormous (bilharzia-carrying?) snail as big as both my fists.

The jungle is a world apart, riven only by tracks where pygmy hunters emerge and disappear. Quite a number of monkeys to be seen. Enormous bamboo and trees and intensely thick undergrowth. Wherever one stops, pygmies immediately materialise with goods to barter. At one point, we saw mud-smeared negro villagers celebrating the birth the previous night of twins, presented to us with mud-smeared faces in leaf-filled baskets.

Will probably make it to Rwanda border tomorrow or next day, so have to find somewhere to post this. Can hear drumming and singing in the distance tonight, as usual.

17/7. Have lost hours today on this atrocious road, chopping away wattle-trees that had fallen across the road and repairing a bridge that had half-fallen into the river. Lush green hills and well-fed cattle – could be NZ or England or Aust. after rain.