I walked down the hill from the Ranger Station hut after summiting the Nyiragongo volcano in the Rift Valley of Zaire (now known as Democratic Republic of Congo). I reached the red dirt, rutted main road heading from Goma north through Rutshuru.
In that direction was the small border town of Ishasha where I hoped to cross into Uganda to see the Ugandan Queen Elizabeth National Park. The Park straddles the border of Zaire and Uganda and was on my destination list as I headed eastward.
As I stood on the side of the road, a solid-looking Land Rover stopped. The blond 30 something driver beamed at me and asked, “Where are you going?”
“KAMPALA!” I shouted back and returned the smile.
“Great,” he said, “You are welcome to join me, I’m headed across the border that way myself. I can drop you off well into Uganda, where it should be easy for you to get a ride straight to Kampala. We will pass Lake Victoria on the way!”
The border was most of a day’s drive from where we were, so I was very lucky getting such a kind offer and getting a seat to sit in as well. People look out for each other in Africa.
My new friend, Zoran, was a Yugoslavian mining engineer working for an Australian company, Rio Tinto. They had gold mining interests on both sides of the Uganda-Zaire border.
Every two weeks, after working at the company operations in Zaire, my Yugoslavian friend would cross the border into Uganda. He told me we would arrive at the border in the afternoon, meet with the Congolese and then the Uganda border security staff. Then in the evening he would host a banquet for both complements of border guards. It would surely be the highlight of the week for border and customs police authorities at the small, remote border town.
When we did arrive at the border, it was late afternoon. My friend showed me our simple accommodations – huts with a latrine (and something of a shower!). He encouraged me to rest, relax, shower and get ready for the evening’s festivities.
The banquet started around 8PM. In the tropics, you eat after the sun goes down. I was introduced to all as a traveling student from the United States. I am sure not many of us come through this dusty border crossing.
Since my visas for both Uganda and Zaire were perfectly in order, each authority stamped my passport in anticipation of our planned departure early the following morning.
Then we ate, we sang and we drank. I wanted to go to sleep around 11PM because we would be leaving shortly after sunrise. The party carried on, bottles of Primus were ordered and consumed. Everyone was having a great time. I understand the party typically went on until 2AM.
We were up early for coffee and a simple breakfast the following morning. As we drove smiling past the border and raised barriers, the young officer laughingly smiled and waved us through.
I was happy (and relieved) to so easily enter Uganda. My Yugoslavian friend had told me that Idi Amin had formalized his coup d’etat and named himself head of government for Uganda. The day before we entered Uganda, he issued Proclamations including one banning shabby hair and bushy beards. Apparently, Idi Amin could not grow a beard himself, so none would be allowed. I crossed the border wearing a Cornell T-shirt and a full beard.
Idi Amin also banned mini-skirts. He expelled people of Asian descent the next year arguing that he was “giving Uganda back to ethnic Ugandans.” He might have thought he was Making Uganda Great Again, but it undermined the Ugandan economy and lead Uganda to descend into becoming one of the worst economies in Africa.
Once we entered Uganda, the scenery changed. It was spectacular, like a dream.
We exited the extreme eastern edge of the equatorial jungle that I had traveled for more than 1,000 miles from the West, all the way from the Atlantic.
Ahead of us was the drop-off of the Rift Valley. We skirted the road east of Lac Edouard (in Zaire) – Lake Edward (in Uganda). We climbed to the top of the sloping Rift escarpment.
To the East, past the drop-off, stretched the great savannahs of East Africa. At the end of an elevated stretch of the red dusty road in Queen Elizabeth Park, my blonde Yugoslavian friend stopped so we could get out to admire this amazing view from the heights. It is one of the most spectacular vistas on the planet.
We looked out across the plains of Western Uganda. They gradually sloped down to the northwestern shores of Lake Victoria, the third largest lake in the world, a real inland sea. We could see for miles.
The sun was high in the sky. There were vast herds of grazing animals as far as the eye could see. Flocks of birds. No people. Just Africa’s natural beauty at its most majestic.
As we drove on, my goal became how to smuggle my beard through and out of Uganda, intact. But first on to Kampala.