“Hi ni bunduki” “this is a gun and he is a soldier” said the emigration director as she study a zoom lens for my camera at the Uganda Congo DRC frontier post of Kisinyi. And on my attempt to protest the madam of the DGM roared in Ki Swahili “rudisha kwau” “return him back to where he has come from” and with this I left the woman’s office exhausted after four hours of questions and delays.


I had left the relevant order of Uganda and on the border barrier being lifted I entered the chaotic world of no tarmac and complete disorder – welcome to Kisinyi DRC.

My Ugandan driver asked “are you sure you wish to remain here in the DRC, do you think this is a safe country to travel in? Mr. Steve please think carefully” I had come to the DRC with the objective of travelling onto Bunia and from there into the Ituri rain forests and in particular to the Okapi reserve of Epulu.

The forests of the Ituri are rarely if ever visited and due to this nation ten years of civil war few if any intrepid travelers attempt to travel to this lawless and remote region of Central Africa.

After eventually crossing into the DRC we were to encounter a traffic jam of over three kilometers long, trucks mainly from Uganda were stuck firmly in the red laterite muddy soils of this mineral rich giant African territory. I was to abandon my inexperienced Ugandan driver and instead linked up with a Congolese taxi driver from the regional town of Beni.

The young Congolese chauffer drove with confidence and knowledge and paid off numerous road blocks along the route to Beni and onto Bunia.

I was somewhat charmed by the delightful tranquility of Beni where we were to stop for lunch in an oasis of peace and calm namely Beni Hotel. I had been tempted to stay on in Beni but after consulting my map I decided to press onto Bunia where there is a direct road to Epulu and onto Kisangani and this regions vast and uncharted endless equatorial rain forest.

Two days after arriving in Bunia I was to receive information that street fighting had broken out after Mai Mai rebels had entered Beni and had attacked the town’s prison releasing over five hundred prisoners.

Bunia lies within a region of great mineral wealth with vast gold reserves and not far from the town lays Lake Albert where commercial quantities of gas and petroleum are to be found but as yet remain to be exploited.

Due to this region ten years of tribal conflict little if any development has taken place and the present town can only be described as a dismal underdeveloped forgotten dust bowl.

After a week in Bunia I finally made plans to visit the low lands of the eastern Congo Basin where I was to travel onto the town of Bafwasende a town that lay 550 kilometers to the south west of Bunia and 250 east of Kiangani the DRC third largest city.

After two hours the road descended into the endless forested region of the Ituri and the conservation reserve of Epulu.

Here within these forests one would encounter one of Africa’s most ancient hunter gatherers the Mbuti Pygmy’s a peoples whose way of life has adapted to the rich bio-diverse forests of this vast and endless region, an area rich in gold and diamonds not to mention endless real-estates of timber and other rare and eagerly sort after minerals including deposits of gas and petroleum.

Lately Chinese, Koreans and even Brazilians have begun to infiltrate this region and eagerly tapping into these African rain forests in order to access the fabulous wealth that has so far remained unexploited.

With the rain forests of Latin America and Borneo being forever rapaciously stripped and recklessly looted of their resources the forested heart of Africa is rapidly attracting conglomerates and an endless motley assortment of fortune seekers ranging from Chinese, Koreans, Indians, Pakistanis, American’s, Canadian’s, Belgian’s and the French for the Congo may well be one of the riches mineral territory’s to be found any where on our exhausted and resource depleted planet.

From Bafwasende I planned on taking a dirt track for a distant of 185 kilometers to a location known as Bomili which lay at the confluence of the Nepoku and the Ituri River a territory of vast and endless pristine unexploited rain forests without roads but only limited access by way of regional rivers.

Villages along the route to Bomili were inhabited by a regional Bantu tribe known as the Mbale and traditional Pygmy hunter gathers community’s known as the Mbuti. Here communications are non-existent and within these remote forests the only form of transport is either by bicycles or motor cycles.

In former times a road had existed along this route built during the colonial period by the Belgians but with their departure over fifty years ago bridges have since collapsed and roads have become overgrown with trees and equatorial tropical vegetation, Africa has reclaimed it’s spirit formerly invaded by aliens seeking to strip these forests of their unknown and unlimited wealth.

During the course of my journey into this rarely visited area I was to join local Mbuti Pygmy’s on hunting trips with traditional nets and dogs whilst on other occasions I was too unexpectedly encounter masked traditional dancers that would bewitch fire lit village nights for this is a region still as yet un-penetrated by the age of the internet and a land without mobile phone communications.

As an outsider and a stranger to these regions I was not only an object of curiosity but also viewed with intense suspicion and on occasions I was asked if indeed my camera was able to detect diamonds and gold.

After a grueling two days of crossing rivers and swamps the track finally came to a halt in the hamlet of Bomili a region of alluvial gold and diamonds mining but Bomili greatest attraction is the beautiful rapids of the Nepoku and the confluence of the rivers of the Ituri and Nepoku.

On the other side of the Nepoku rapids lay the ruined cocoa plantation and the abandoned former house of Seignior Medina the founder of the Epulu Okapi conservation project. Between the years 1952/54 Medina had captured the first four Okapis for the Epulu reserve but Medina was in essence a true frontiers-man.

Medina also hunted ivory and was active in mining gold, diamonds and even planted a plantation of Cacao which was still to be found but now abandoned and left in ruins. I was to visit Bomili twice over a period of three months and was to marvel at large and rarely seen colorful butterfly’s I was also stunned and taken aback by one of this regions rarity’s the giant Tiger fish thought to exist only within the mighty Congo river.

My encounter with this giant was a first sighting for myself and the sheer impact of witnessing this voracious predator would leave a truly indelible lifelong impression. After a fortnight of visiting the Nepoku rapids and the Ituri River I was summonsed one early morning to visit a regional petty chief of which in the Congo every village has many. In spite of my permit the regional chief decided that I would no longer be permitted to enter the surrounding regions forests until the senior regional chief “de territoire” arrived in two days time for a provincial meeting. I decided that in view of having filmed and photographed for the last two weeks not to contest the chief’s dictates, I was to accept my fate and happily packed the two motor cycles for the journey back through the forest and along the rugged trail in the direction of Bafwasende and the main dirt highway between Kisangani and the route back to Bunia. During my first visit to Bafwasende I met Philliman a local conservationist and a regional personality popularly known throughout especially with local Mbuti villages.

It would be with Philliman and Patrick that I would travel to Bomili and to the various Mbuti villages. As with all rural regions in the DRC I would be obliged to visit the office of the DGM or emigration and in the Case of Bafwasende it would be Paul a tall young Congolese with a congenial smile and a friendly disposition “I have not received my salary for the last six months” few government employees are paid a regular salary and are left to find whatever resources they can to survive on. During the era of Zaire the renowned kleptomaniac and friend of the western Sese Seko Mobutu being unable to manage this nations regional functionaries actually encouraged the Police, the military and other state employees to insist on extortionate payments from ordinary members of the public a system that has turned this country into one of the most corrupt nations on the planet.

After Paul at the DGM I was next escorted to the office of Idriss the regions chief administrator and after drafting a document with his official stamp and signature giving permission to visit Bomili I was finally asked to pay a fee of $100 which would have amounted to a total sum of $120 including the DGM fee of “$20” I exclaimed “I have fifty, make it $50 that is all I have to give”. The administrator looked embarrassed and gave a glance over to Paul the DGM officer “o.k. that will do” said Paul as he held out his hand to receive the $50 bill from myself. On the road back to Bunia I was reassured by Philliman and Patrick that they would continue onto Bunia after a night rest at Epulu a small village that was in fact where the Okapi breeding project was located. Along the route back to Bunia we were to pass through Nia Nia a town not far from a Brazilian gold miner who was reputedly extracting a kilogram of gold per-week and was said to be using mercury to acquire this valuable ore from the regions rivers. Avikumbi location has a spectacular view of the Ituri River but due to the Chinese dredging for gold the river has turned into a deep dark laterite red. There have been a number of serious cases of altercations between the local military and Chinese gold miners in which two Chinese and a Congolese soldier have been murdered.

The Ituri region could possibly be one of the riches gold mining areas on the planet and large mining corporations are rushing to stake their claims. Ahshanti gold fields have acquired the largest stake at a location known as Mongwalou whilst Canadian and S. African Mining company’s are looking further inland to claim mining rights over vast tracts of forest terrain deep in the interior of the Ituri forests. Forty kilometers from Bunia lays Lake Albert in the Rift valley where large commercial quantities of gas and oil have been located. The DRC is a land of potential fabulous wealth a virgin territory still as yet to be surveyed and with the mining of alluvial gold and diamonds and other minerals any centralized government 3000 kilometers to the south west will find it virtually impossible to tax these vast and lucrative resources for this is a land without roads, phones or internet and the forests of the Congo Basin still remain isolated and remote. The DRC is the geographic heart of Africa and without a road network or ocean ports extracting valuable resources poses serious problems to the would be logger or miner. The Congo is also Africa’s largest and perhaps most diverse nation and political instability has been a fact of life for the last fifty years of independence. As Mobutu health and authority passed the ensuing power vacuum led to conflicts and wars along with a Ugandan and Rwandan invasion into the east and during these conflicts over a period of ten years five million Congolese inhabitants were said to have lost their lives due to armed conflicts and chronic instability.

I had come to the Congo at perhaps an extremely sensitive period; national elections were in progress and my visit to the DRC was too coincided with these unpredictable elections. The epicenter for potential conflict would of course be the capital Kinshasa where over forty eight persons were shot dead during a spate of violent demonstrations by opponents of Joseph Kabila who was accused by election monitors to have fraudulently won and was subsequently re-installed as president of the republic. Tishikedi the veteran opposing candidate refused to accept the election results and instead declared him-self to be the nation’s new and rightful elected president. Perhaps the most insecure regions of this vast nation are the great lakes lying in the east of the DRC bordering Rwanda and Uganda and within this region are to be found various groups of armed militias, many of whom are also heavily involved in mining, logging and illegal poaching.

The road from Epulu to Mambasa and onto Comanda and to Beni are regions of constant insecurity where one is advised not to drive after four in the evening .On my first visit Beni appeared to be calm and tranquil only to be informed a few days later after my departure that a militia known as the Mai Mai had attacked the towns prison and sprung 525 rebel prisoners and during the course of street fighting a number of government soldiers and been shot dead. The shear physical nature of this nation poses a serious question of how to manage the complexity of administering such a huge underdeveloped and potentially rich region within the very geographical heart of Africa. On approaching the last twenty kilometers of road to Bunia one is constantly encountering impoverished military camps along the road side. When one takes into account that most of these armed soldiers are not paid a salary one needs to ask the question how do they live and feed their family’s and having heard so much about general insecurity on these roads at night one wonders who in-fact are the rebels under the cover of nightfall.

Bunia during the ten years of civil conflict was a town of insecurity and bloody tribal conflict a war fought between the agricultural Lendu and the pastoralist Bahima, this was a bloody and barbaric conflict, acts of cannibalism, mutilations and decapitated victims heads displayed on wooden poles and brutal summary executions carried out in front of the UN compound known as MONUC, these were only some of the atrocities carried out during this period of vicious conflict. Today Bunia may be on the brink of an economic boom with oil and gas deposits found in Lake Albert about to be exploited by the planets oil giants and along with Ashanti Gold Fields having also acquired the rich and lucrative mining rights to perhaps Africa’s riches gold mines found in Mongwalu. The vast and lucrative resources of the Ituri are now up for sale and with Bunia position facing into east Africa this region of the DRC may well prove to be the economic engine in supplying the booming economies and populations of east Africa with its bountiful and seemingly endless untapped wealth. But with the general elections only having just passed many await to see if indeed security can develop for without political security and social stability few may be willing to invest in such a potentially turbulent region.

The Congo Basin and the endless expanse of the DRC represent one of the planets last remaining bio-diverse bonanzas and with the planets dwindling resources this is a region attracting the attention of the new emerging super economy’s of Asia and in order to sustain growth these new emerging giants will need unlimited new supplies of raw materials to sustain their continuous economic growth.

During my stay in Bunia I was to request permission to film within the Epulu conservation project, in particular I was fascinated with the Okapi breeding program. The Okapi is known as the forest giraffe and is found only within the equatorial rain forests of the DRC. After having E/mailed the park director I was offered the possibility to film within the reserve for a fee of “only $2500 per day”, food and accommodation would be extra and any other activities such as Mbuti hunting trips or traditional Pygmy dances would be more. I was to protest at the exorbitant fees but to no avail in spite of offering to create a positive educational visual resource in helping to promote the Epulu conservation region. The film was to be financed by a number of zoos and zoological society’s and other conservation organizations with the ultimate objective to support and to raise not only awareness but also funds for the Okapi project and the park of Epulu.

After having failed to persuade the parks director I was able to contact a number of organizations that have contacts with the various conservation body’s that operate within the DRC capital in Kinshasa and after lobbying for a number of weeks permission was finally granted and a free permit was issued to film within the conservation project at Epulu and in particular the Okapi project itself. “You have been to Kinshasa instead of dealing with us on the ground” exclaimed the indignant director of Epulu!!! I had finally come face to face with Monsignor Mapiso the park director whilst dining at a local hotel in Bunia. After persuading Monsignor Mapiso of my good intentions I was at last I thought accepted and trusted but my working relationship with the park director would never be fully accepted and eventually whilst visiting the Epulu reserve I was to find myself entering into a world of division and brooding simmering resentment. I had left Bafwasende with Philliman and Patrick who had initially agreed to travel to Bunia but after spending the night in the village of Epulu they had changed their minds and refused to travel further pointing out the insecurity and dangers of driving within this particular region especially Comanda and Mambasa.

The province of Ituri was far from home and the thought of these regions bloody tribal conflicts was enough to convince my former travelling companions to demand payment so they would be able to return back to their familiar peaceful surroundings of friends, wives and family’s. Monsignor Henry Dafoe was an advisor to the park director and Dafoe had been appointed by a renowned European bank to assist with and to identify what the park needed .Epulu is a world heritage site and in-spite of ten years of civil conflict and unrest the park is still being funded by European and N .American conservationist.

Besides Dafoe there was a Swiss director of the Okapi breeding program this is a woman who had spent the last twenty years of her life working with devotion to help conserve the endangered Okapi a creature found only within the eastern rain-forests of the DRC.

After Marie the Swiss director the next foreign resident was a former French paratrooper by the name of Pierre a congenial Frenchman who loved working in Africa and would train the new park wardens outside my Spartan room which in-turn frighten both birds and early morning primates due to his loud vocal commands.

Dafoe prescience at the dining table was an uncomfortable and a difficult experience “I don’t like talking when I am eating, I don’t like that at all”. After a number of days I learnt to avoid Dafoe dining room Company and instead I retreated to the relative calm and tranquility of the veranda. The director of the Epulu was a dour official Congolese by the name of Mapiso. There was to be no invitation to Mapiso rather palatial residence and on a number of occasions I was summonsed to his office where Mapiso sat behind a large official desk dressed in a newly pressed military uniform. “Where is your camera” snapped Mapiso “I don’t have all day, I am a busy man, come on please get your camera now”.

What had upset Mapiso was the fact that Kinshasa had granted permission for me to film the Epulu reserve and in Mapiso own words when we had first met back in Bunia was “you have gone to Kinshasa instead of consulting us here on the ground”. In-spite of the previous ten years of civil war and general insecurity the Epulu and the Okapi project has survived and one can only admire the steadfast commitment that both Marie and Mapiso have shown over the years in helping to sustain such an important conservation project. Two weeks prior to my arrival two soldiers had been shot and killed during a fire-fight with armed poachers.

The park is also subject to consistent encroachment by Chinese miners dredging the regions rivers in search of alluvial gold but the most serious threat to the very survival of the park has been the huge Asian demand for ivory most of which will be destined for China the world largest single market .Elephant poaching has in the last four years begun to escalate as the price of this valuable African product has spiraled and in turn the forest elephants of the Congo basin have begun to decline ,huge smuggled batches of ivory have been intercepted at Nairobi international airport whilst on the Atlantic sea ports such as Douala in the Cameroon and Asian ports such as Hong Kong harbor local authorities have seized and impounded illegally smuggled ivory tusks from this region of Africa.

The Congolese army both in Kisangani and Bunia have been deeply implicated in the whole sale slaughter of elephants for their tusks but if we are to retain herds of forest elephants in the wild we as a global community need to be aware of the urgent need to conserve one of the last remaining bio-diverse rain forest left intact on our rapidly depleted planet. One of Chinas main objectives within the Congo has been the development of infrastructure projects such as the trans-copper-belt, Katanga, Beguela railway and now an all weather asphalt highway into the Ituri through too Kisangani. This road will of course link into east Africa through Uganda and onto the port of Mombasa and with the completion of this highway the great primary rain-forests of the Ituri will for the first time ever be open to commercial exploitation with easy access by way of a new all weather road.

Gold and iron ore deposits have been earmarked by mining corporations but the most lucrative product will be the thousands of square kilometers of primary forests one of the last great tracks of rain-forests left on our planet and with east Africa facing into the Indian Ocean this new highway will become the main route for exports to the great new emerging super powers of Asia namely India and more importantly China. The Congo vast and as yet untouched wealth will be eagerly exploited by these new emerging resource hungry Asian powers. After a rather uneventful stay at Epulu I began to plan my exit from an encampment that I felt merely tolerated my prescience but in contrast my journey to Bafwasende and the forested paths to Bomili were of great interest and adventure. The formal military environment of Epulu provided an insight into the sterile highrachy of the ICCN, I had also grown to dislike the Belgian Dafoe and had no further desire to share another dinning table with him again. Mapiso the director of the project remained supremely aloof and formal and as the days were to pass I became more eager to travel rather than remain in such an environment. After Mapiso had informed me that I was to relocate from a secure room to a tent on the embankment of the river Epulu I finally packed my equipment and bags and left the ICCN encampment for the rather more congenial village of Epulu. The following morning at 8.00 I was visited by an ICCN guard on a motorcycle and informed that “votra vol ella dons le airport” although I had requested a flight from MAF “Missionary’s Air Flights” I was unaware that they had in-fact sent a Cessna Caravan. In the knowledge that there might not have been a flight I had instead phoned Bunia and ordered a 4×4 to collect myself and baggage, I was now obliged to pay for not only the flight but also the land cruiser. After arriving at Epulu airstrip I was greeted by a young born again Christian from El Paso Texas.

Before leaving I had baggage to round up and bills to pay whilst Chuck the pilot had a cake to deliver for Marie and as I headed back to the guest house in Epulu Chuck sped off with the cake for Marie on the back of a motor. After having collected my baggage and returned to the airstrip I was to request a flyover of the Epulu project a view that I was determined to capture on HD film. As the Cessna circled over the vast terrain of the Ituri forests below I was to glimpse my last vision of the Epulu Okapi project after which the Caravan continued to gain altitude and flew in the direction of Bunia a distance of over 250 kilometers .The view from above was of an endless green sea of broccoli interspersed with winding orange red laterite coloured rivers appearing as if to be the blood veins of this thick magical living bio-diverse land, this vast and endless spectacle is indeed a fragile world a magical environment, a land of potential fabulous wealth in which the forests sustains a fragile region of unique wildlife in an interdependent biosphere.

In a world of rocketing global populations and declining resources these magical forests of the Congo Basin are at a greater risk than at any other stage in the ongoing story of human development and the destruction of this region will represent the final stages of our complete erosion of our planets last remaining rain-forests but if we as a species go down this route we will urgently need to ask ourselves if we indeed have a sustainable future!!!