By William Mills
Michael O’Connell,69, recently made a trip to the Congo, taken there by his work.
“My office was asking for a volunteer to make the journey. I thought; ‘Why not? You’re only young once.’”
He flew from Heathrow to Paris before boarding an Air France flight to Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC].
“Our local representative met me at the airport and took me to my hotel. It was all very friendly and efficient.” He said. “It had a pool and the Congolese menu included chicken and chips.”
The only disappointment was the location on the outskirts near an industrial park. So Michael moved to another hotel in the town centre giving him the opportunity to visit local shops and restaurants.
“I enjoy meeting new faces and talking to people.” He explained.
Just as he was getting used to his new surroundings, his Congolese colleague, Disma, needed to time out to visit his family. The only thing was they lived in South Kivu on the other side of the country and Michael was asked if he would like to go to.
“ I was apprehensive about travelling outside the capital but I really wanted to see the country and didn’t want to offend my colleague. So we planned ahead and left the following weekend.” Michael said.
It turned out to be a 1,000 mile flight from Kinshasa to Goma, which is a border town between the DRC and Rwanda.
A McDonnell Douglas twin engine took them safely there, with only one stop on route. The flight was fairly full and just the same as any other flight that Michael had been on. From the window it was possible to see the panoramic canopy of rain forest stretching from horizon to horizon.
Goma is on the shores of Lake Kivu. Disma wanted to see some of his relatives living there before travelling down the 50 mile lake to another town, Bukavu, to visit others.
The hotel in Goma was very clean with no bed bugs. It produced a substantial meal for seven of them for around US$ 100. In the morning a cousin of Disma’s picked them up and took them to the lakeside jetty where they caught the hydrofoil ferry to Bukavu which took three hours.
Although Michael stayed with Disma’s family he noticed there were a number of reasonable hotels in the town.
This district was the scene of conflict in recent times between warring parties, and a rebel group called the M23 is opposed by the Congolese Army, and there are still skirmishes. It was here to where the Tutsis, escaping the genocide in Rwanda, fled to.
The rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, a Congolese Tutsi and former DRC general, was captured just north of Goma in 2009 by a joint action between Congolese and Rwandan forces.
It is also famous for its wildlife and an increasing number of films documenting the habitat of the gorilla. It’s becoming popular as a destination for wildlife enthusiasts with its many nature reserves. It’s climate is similar to summer in Switzerland with temperatures of 25 c and its abundant lakes form one of the sources of the river Nile.
During the week he was there Michael encountered tribal customs which had been handed down the ages.
They travelled to villages in a four wheel drive Toyota Land cruiser up to 50 miles from Bukavu where it’s custom for the chief to meet visitors and exchange gifts. Michael gave him a case of beer, a sack of rice and some cooking oil. In return Michael received a live chicken. This travelled in the back of the land cruiser before being presented to his hosts.
The final day arrived and goodbyes were said, they having booked the midday flight back to Kinshasa. In Africa however, nothing is straight forward. An hour into the return ferry ride black smoke erupted from the exhaust. Next they were stationary in the water, the engine having broken down.
Passengers and crew alike nervously peered over the side. This was crocodile country. Although some local fishermen risk swimming, it’s not generally advised as the wildlife are both hostile and hungry. Another hour passed before help arrived in the form of a tramp steamer to which the passengers gratefully transferred.
The Goma to Kinshasa flight left on time without them. As it goes but twice a week they were in a quandary because they were expected back and meetings arranged.
All was not lost however when word came of a freight flight the next morning. At 8am Michael and Disma arrived at Goma airport’s freight depot. The morning passed African style. When you wait, you wait. At midday with the heat building in the airless sky a minibus took them to a waiting Boeing 727 freight aircraft being loaded with a relocating army unit’s equipment.
Finally the rear cargo doors were closed and steps brought up to the front passenger door. Inside there were six seats. To share them were 50 civilians and 80 army personnel. Michael, perhaps because he was the only Westerner, or because he announced he was a pilot himself, was offered a bucket style seat on the flight deck.
The others weren’t so lucky. The plane taxied before stopping again. The captain declared the plane was overladen and the weight must be reduced. A number of soldiers were ordered off. The steps again were removed. Only the troops didn’t fancy their chances in what was to them rebel territory. They formed a pyramid and clambered back up and on board once again.
There’s a problem with the runway at Goma airport. A few years ago a volcano 15km away erupted and the lava flow reached the runway shortening it. Therefore Captain had to taxi right to the end and turn. Applying full breaks he took the engines up to maximum throttle. Shaking, the plane hurtled down the runway nose wheel lifting but with its rear ones stubbornly on the ground.
Michael had his doubts about clearing the rapidly approaching shanty town immediately after the end of the shrinking runaway. But the captain knew his stuff. They made it.
The Boeing 727 was fitted with the old style Omega navigation system which requires sufficient land based transmitting stations to work, which weren’t present here. So the staff improvised with a handheld GPS taped to the dashboard. Crude but effective, they arrived safely back in Kinshasa.