I’ve been holding my breath a lot the last fortnight or so. Catching myself needing to stop, unclench and breathe a little easier, over and over again. The invitation letter I need for my visa came through today. The fixer is confirmed. A thousand ephemeral shards of some implausible dream have suddenly spliced themselves together into something real. I can see my reflection in the enterprise at last. And some emotional spring has been storing the energy ever since.

Journalists too often tell stories from the safety of the afterward. I made it. It wasn’t such a big deal. I’m hardcore.


Nobody accounts for their experiences in realtime. Explains the intricate emotional calculus beforehand that balances things-that-are-important with things-that-are-terrifying. Because some things really are worth risking everything for. As anathema as that may be to the comfortable, the cosseted, the generation that can drown the world’s screams underneath Saturday night television.

So I can’t help but wonder, in fleeting moments, if the DRC is everything Conrad’s ancestors have made it out to be.

So in a little over a month, four of us are due to cross over into the DRC. Moving towards the town of Bunia, in the district of Ituri. There we have some work to do. Things to record. Stories to tell.

It’s not that the specifics are vague, it’s that sharing them might just be to tempt fate. Fate and I have an understanding at present. A trust of sorts. The kind where suddenly reaching out to tickle it while it’s sipping a soda might provoke its karmic wrath. Besides, it will be worth waiting for the dispatches. I promise.

But back to that emotional spring. We’re covering all the bases we can. First aid. Cell phones. Dozens of conversations with people-who-know-things, and planning appropriately to the advice we’ve been given. Don’t travel before 9am or after 4pm. Talk to the MONUSCO peacekeepers in Bunia when you get there to get a sense of the security situation in the outlying areas. Bring a phone. Keep in touch.

Maybe it’s all overstated. God knows I was tense before heading to Northern Uganda, and in the end it was nothing like its history. The danger lay only in the frozen echoes of the war that stick in the Internet. Gulu moved on, began repairing. Though there was much in the days to push and challenge us emotionally, it wasn’t a dangerous place.

And the truth is that even if Gulu is not still a dangerous place, it was once.

So I can’t help but wonder, in fleeting moments, if the DRC is everything Conrad’s ancestors have made it out to be.

But that wondering undermines vigilance. And the truth is that even if Gulu is not still a dangerous place, it was once. Here and there, at the edges of the world where things break down, those places still exist. Pockets of danger in otherwise banal scenery.

And so if you are not careful, you may – just one time – stop looking for danger long enough that you fail to recognize it in time. That oversight needs to only happen one time.

Hence the phones. Hence asking for advice. Hence planning, reading, learning, preparing, and planning some more. Hence the tightly coiled spring. Because the nervous energy, even as it burns your attention to the minutiae of pre-departure life, is an investment in vigilance that should neve be avoided.

It’s exhausting, and it’s wracking, but it seems foolish to be otherwise.

When my flight touches back down in South Africa there will be time enough to exhale.

  • Susana

    Don’t believe the hype, but always try to be aware, present:) You who Traveled to the front door of a hospital where a major illness was potentially brewing in Gulu…..what a great adventure..heading to the DRC…hear it’s beautiful there..saw it from the border of UGS during Safari….wish I could come along:) keep Writing..

  • Richard, your stories capture the adrenaline, doubt and fear that can imbue our field. Have you read “The Bang Bang Club” about photojournalism in Apartheid South Africa? Or “The Lotus Eaters” about photojournalists in Vietnam? I think you’d enjoy both reads. Best of luck with your adventures!

  • Richard

    I’ll be sure to. I promise.

  • Richard

    I hadn’t heard of The Lotus Eaters. I’ve just ordered it online now, and if I haven’t read it before departure, I think I may just take it with to read on the postal bus to Gulu. Going back there again, but without you guys, feels a little like being some sort of ghost walking through the memories of our earlier journey.

  • Theroux said something like: tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travellers don’t know where they’re going. Seems travellers, whether journalists or not, will always discover and share more and we are very much looking forward to your discoveries. All the best. Ant.

  • Eileen

    I an sense your tension, and hope it leaves you in a slow shoosh and not a giant sproing. I also hope it serves you well, keeping you careful, keeping you safe. This strip you are about to take it epic. I Will listen for your stories and trust you will tell them when it is time. Travel safe, my friend!

  • Eileen

    trip, not strip, though do what you must. :)

  • Thanks Anton – and the same to you on your adventures.It looks like you will be getting quite intimate with your smart car in the not-too-distant future!

  • I preferred the first version. Much more colourful :) But thanks for the wishes – I promise to come back safe and bring bookfuls of interesting stories. As must you from Suriname – I loved your adventuring in NZ, and hope your coming journey is an introspective and challenging one. In the best of possible ways.

  • i don’t know why i didn’t stumble on this post first, i guess i don’t always do things in order :). your words again leave me restless, not dissatisfied as such, but i’m left with that feeling that i want to be on the edge of something. they remind me of years past when, driven by demons at my feet, i found myself on the edges of the world…and I have never felt so alive and also terrified in my life.

    i write this, in my safe little world – cup of tea at hand – and my day mapped out, and i can tell you with all certainty that right now i want to be back out there. but things change don’t they, boundaries and circumstances dictate otherwise, love even. we compromise.

    but…..and i’m happy that there is a but….i write this not with head lost in the past of ‘when we’ stories, but the knowledge that i have just taken the first step back into a life that i want to lead; a job that has made me stale and tired is now over and i have new wings at my feet, i’m inspired by new directions and stories to seek out. this is my own creative journey now, not pouring it all into someone else’s. i very much look forward to hearing your stories when you return…safe travels and safari njema..

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