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Open Features: In The Congo - The Gift Of Travel

...We all look forward here to the ‘gift’ every three months of five days (ORB or Occasional Recuperation Break, in the jargon) which is in addition to our six weeks’ leave per year...

Yvonne Lumb, who works for the United Nations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, seizes every opportunity to go travelling.

Speaking of travel, we all look forward here to the ‘gift’ every three months of five days (ORB or Occasional Recuperation Break, in the jargon) which is in addition to our six weeks’ leave per year. They threatened to take it away from us this year, using the argument that life was getting easier here; however, this didn’t fly and the staff union together with MONUC, fought hard to retain it and won a reprieve at least until December this year.

The condition for getting the ORB days is that one MUST travel outside the DRC, and we have to prove that we’ve been out, and on the correct days, by means of the stamps in our UN Laissez Passer or passport. Most people add annual leave days to ORB and go home or elsewhere. If it’s a question of only taking ORB, most people choose to go somewhere close so as to minimize the air fare and other costs.

South Africa is a popular choice and since I’ve been here, I’ve been several times. In 2003, I spent a week at a lovely spa, Hooglands, about 25 km north west of Pretoria, which was absolutely divine – lots of pampering but you had to give up alcohol, sugar and caffeine on entering the place. I had a constant headache for the first two days as my body adjusted, but this was well compensated for by healthy home cooking, long nature trails every day at dawn and dusk, water therapy in abundance, yoga and meditation classes in the evenings after dinner. Most days I was in bed by 8.30 pm. No phones in the rooms, no cell phones allowed and no TV or radio. I felt tip-top when I checked out.

I’ve also been back to the States twice, twice to Uruguay and to the UK of course. I try to get to England once a year at least and I’m happy to say that when I was last there – this April – my Dad, who’ll be 85 this December, was in great shape and just seems to go from strength to strength.

For Christmas 2004, I decided to once again be adventurous and go to Uganda. I’ve spent two long weekends in Entebbe/Kampala, where we can fly for free with the UN planes. This is a much nicer environment all round than Kinshasa and, needless to say, having been colonized by the British, the country functions 100 times better than the Congo.

However, on this trip, I flew as far as Bunia in the northeast of DRC with a UN fixed wing plane and then a connection by helicopter to a small town in western Uganda called Kasese, where MONUC also has a small presence.

The first attempt we made to reach Kasese (only a 40 minute flight) had to be aborted as the helicopter couldn’t land due to the weather, so we turned back to Bunia, at that time - and to a degree still - a godforsaken hole, prone to unrest and formerly ruled by rebel groups, full of refugees squatting in squalid camps near the airport, a real den of iniquity and ringed with MONUC APCs and mine-resistant vehicles full of blue helmets – all in all a totally unwholesome place. Here I was forced to spend a second night, on my way to the wonderful Mweya Safari Lodge in the heart of the Queen Elizabeth National Park.

The hassle I went through to get there (including a 50 mile or so drive to the park from the DRC/Uganda border, which I arranged on arrival) was rewarded by stunning views from the helicopter of the beautiful Rwenzori Mountains which span both countries, with green and purple hues and snow-capped in the highest parts.

The lodge is perched on high ground overlooking Lake Edward and also the Kazinga Channel which connects that lake with Lake George. (More details at www.mweyalodge.com). With huge picture windows running around almost the entire common areas of the lodge, the views are stunning. Whether just sitting in the lounge reading and relaxing or dining in the restaurants, the well-kept grounds sloping down to the water are always in sight. Breakfasts were taken outside on the terrace, with beautifully coloured birds landing constantly on the tables and chairs.

For Christmas the lodge had some special events planned: Christmas Eve there was a special dinner, followed by a carol concert by a choir all arranged around the camp fire overlooking the lake – they had fixed the lawns and camp fire area very prettily with Christmas lights and it was really magical.

I spent Christmas Day roaming around the lush grounds admiring some of the 200 or so species of birds found in the park. Then I went on one of the launch trips offered along the Channel, and this was just superb for game viewing; the boat goes slowly, hugging the banks, so you can gaze infinitely at wonderful elephant and hippo bathing and playing in the shallow waters.

You can also book game drives at the lodge – I was fortunate enough to meet a young English girl who was working in Kampala for an NGO and whose parents had come over to visit her. They had a rented 4x4 and invited me to go out with them on a game drive one evening, so we saw some buffalo, warthogs and Uganda kob.

Again, and interestingly, this was another place where TV did not intrude into the nature and perfect peace of the setting, except in a common lounge, specially for the purpose. Unfortunately, this room saw a lot of traffic from Boxing Day on, as soon as word spread about the awful Asian Tsunami. It totally eclipsed everything else.

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