I'm off to the Congo for two weeks. I'm still travelling the world looking for reputed monsters to put in my new book, Scary Monsters and Super Creeps. This time I'm going after the mokele mbembe, a dinosaur-type creature that is supposed to inhabit Lake Tele in the far north of "good" Congo.
In case you didn't know, there are two Congos: the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) is the "bad" Congo. The giveaway being the use of "democratic" in the name – this is always a sign that it is not democratic and not much fun (see the German Democratic Republic and the Democratic People' s Republic of North Korea). I'm off to the Republic of Congo to try to find the elusive beast that has apparently forced tribes of pygmies to build huge stockades around their villages.
I fly to Brazzaville, the capital of "good Congo", which is only separated from Kinshasa, the capital of "bad Congo", by the mighty Congo river. Then I take a rather worrying "EU-blacklisted" flight to the north of the country where I take a car, then a boat, and then go on a two-day walk to my watery destination. As the trip was being planned, I tried to look nonchalant about the whole thing, but it is a serious wander into the heart of darkness. My main concern (apart from being eaten by a mokele mbembe) is the lack of power sources.
I can get by without most things modern, but I need my smartphone, as I do all my writing on it when I'm travelling. I take copious notes and then, at the end of the trip, I email the notes to myself so that I have a huge wad of words with which to get going when I come to write the book.
When I was in North Korea in 2010, I had my iPhone confiscated and had to keep secret notes in a book. When I got back, it took me about a month to decipher my handwriting, which is appalling. If the North Koreans had found it, they would have been convinced that it was a secret code.
So I looked online and found a solution – portable solar chargers. I am going to give them a good run for their money out in the middle of nowhere and just hope they work.
I also went to an outdoors store and purchased some "Africa gear". It seems that, whatever your particular fashion sense or taste, the only thing on offer for African adventurers makes you look a lot like Ray Mears. I was slightly surprised to see that Ray Mears hadn't got his own range of survival gear in the shops, but I bet you it will only be a matter of time before the more business-savvy Bear Grylls gets in on this gig.
Gadget-wise, I bought a head torch so powerful I could land a plane with it. I also got some anti-mosquito stuff strong enough to burn your skin off. Then I only had to go for jabs against yellow fever, typhoid, cholera, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, tetanus, malaria.... It does make you think about whether you really do need to go to Africa. What about the Beast of Bodmin? But it's too late. The trip is organised.
My only knowledge of the Congo comes from Tintin in the Congo, which I used to read avidly as a child. I now realise what a fairly horrific piece of Belgian colonial ignorance it was and shan't be taking a copy with me – although there is supposedly a day every year when locals dress up as Tintin.
I have prepared as best as I can: I have a guide and two porters to accompany me, and I have been trying to learn to speak the local language, but without success. If, thanks to mokele mbembe, this should be the last time you hear from me, farewell, dear readers. It has been a blast.