Text and photography: Stephen Cunliffe
Our vehicles swayed nauseatingly as we travelled along the muddy tracks. We had to make sure that our two Cruisers maintained their forward momentum at all times, otherwise we’d get horribly stuck.
We were in Garamba National Park, one of the oldest parks in Africa, and the roads were absolutely drenched.
As we bounced and swayed along the park’s game drive tracks, I struck up a conversation with one of our mandatory park-assigned escorts. His name was Mambo Marindo and he was the park’s only English-speaking tourist guide.
“Not many tourists have come to Garamba in recent times, but in the future we hope for many more visitors,” he said.
Considering all the obstacles one had to traverse in order to get there, this hardly surprised me.
For instance, crossing the border from Arua in Uganda to Aru in the DRC is an almost impossible challenge. In fact, without the local knowledge and contacts of Odra – a Congolese “fixer” hired by Garamba to fast-track border formalities for park visitors – we would never have made it across.
And once over the border, things only got worse. The “road” between the border and the park is terrible and can best be described as a deep-rutted river of mud. Traversing it is a tiring, frustrating and frightening endeavour.
But for those willing to take on the challenge, the rewards are sweet. You are given the rare privilege of having one Africa’s oldest, remotest and wildest national parks almost entirely to yourself.
Garamba is located in the north-eastern part of the DRC and is the country’s last remaining savannah-type park that boasts sizeable populations of wildlife. It was established by Belgian royal decree in 1938 and was one of the first national parks on the African continent.
Garamba was also designated a Unesco Heritage Site in 1980, and it is easy to see why. Expansive landscapes of gently undulating grasslands set the scene for spectacular encounters with large herds of elephant, buffalo, hippo, Lelwel hartebeest, Ugandan kob and defassa waterbuck in one of the last great chunks of genuine African wilderness.
But while its natural beauty is undeniable, the park has been plagued by many problems. Predictably, many of these issues have been related to central Africa’s turbulent political landscape. For instance, Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) rebels operated within the confines of the park during the 1990s and decimated the animal population.
In 2005 the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) – a notoriously violent guerrilla group from northern Uganda – also established a base in the park. They remained in Garamba until a Ugandan-led military offensive finally drove them out in 2009.