Rumble in the jungle leaves us dancing to two Congos

Mr Mobutu has left behind a travel adventurer's paradise - the wildest country on earth
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The Independent Travel
Last week Mobutu Sese Seko finally suffered the fate of all dictators worth their salt, by being sent into a prosperous retirement. He may have embezzled billions and left his people impoverished, but let's give him his due - he made an interesting contribution to tourism.

Just for starters, he saved the world - temporarily at least - from the confusion of having to put up with two countries of the same name. Just look at the nomenclatural chaos now that Mr Mobutu is gone. Zaire, against all common sense, has been renamed the Congo, despite the fact that we already have one perfectly good country of that name.

Back in 1972 the Republic of Congo (formerly the French Congo) seemed to have won exclusive rights to the name after Mr Mobutu decided that his country (formerly the Belgian Congo) deserved something rather better. He chose Zaire, on the grounds that it sounded dark, jungly and more essentially African.

All right, so what he didn't tell us was that "Zaire" was actually a 15th century Portuguese corruption of the local Kongo word meaning "river", based on a failed attempt at communication with local Kongo tribespeople. All the same, it had most people fooled.

In Britain there was even a hit single with a suitably jungly beat called "In Zaire" which, I suspect, was commissioned by Mr Mobutu at around the time Zaire were qualifying for the football World Cup Finals and Muhammad Ali was being proclaimed king of the jungle.

The very fact that Mr Mobutu managed to persuade the world to accept his country's new name without complaint already puts him in a different league from other tinpot dictators. When second-rate despots try to change their countries' names - Burma to Myanmar, for example - nobody takes any notice.

He also fooled us about the cultural characteristics of central Africa by wearing a preposterous leopard skin hat and insisting on cutting off the ties of anyone who turned up in Kinshasa wearing a suit. This was done in the name of "Africanisation". The fact that Mr Mobutu's ideas of Africa seemed to be based more on a close reading of Tintin in the Congo than anything else didn't do much good for the long-suffering people of Zaire, but they certainly made the country seem more picturesque to the outside world.

Anyway, now that there are two Congos again, what are we going to do about it? Having to distinguish between the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo is going to put a bit of a dampener on all those backpackers' stories about steaming river journeys though the jungle.

And this brings me on to Mr Mobutu's single biggest contribution to tourism, namely that he has left behind him a travel adventure paradise - in the form of the wildest country on earth.

Admittedly there is a downside to this, in the shape of a complete absence of security. Guide books warn that gun-toting policemen make a habit of entering tourists' hotel rooms in the middle of the night to check on their welfare.

But look at the upside. Zaire may be the size of Western Europe, but according to the "Lonely Planet" guide to Africa, one of the most efficient ways of crossing the country these days is to walk (Mr Mobutu would have deplored any move to modernise his country's transport system by building highways). Another recommended means of getting from east to west is buying a pirogue and paddling yourself up the Congo River, staying in pygmy villages as you go.

If you prefer public transport you can try catching the river boat up the river instead, though again, thanks to Mr Mobutu, this has become a highly exclusive experience as the boat only runs once every few months.

If you are among the lucky few to get aboard, third class is described by "Lonely Planet" as suitable for those with "an irrepressible zest for life". The boat "rages 24 hours a day to loud music" and for food there's a zoological bonanza, including pig, goat, crocodile, tortoise and monkey, any of which can be slaughtered for consumption on the spot.

To judge by his own choice of headwear, conditions are every bit as exotic as Mr Mobutu would have wished. Without him, where will we go for adventure?

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