Last post on the Congo

I think I could keep on doing more and more posts on the Congo, I just enjoyed my time in that country so much. However I will limit myself to this one further post, writing not about my adventures but about the (admittedly few) ‘sights’ there were to see on my trip.

Firstly, in Mbandaka, is the rock and plaque marking the equator. Well, more accurately a rock with a flat surface where there was once a plaque (since stolen by someone to cover a hole in their roof?), and a sign, now graffitied, marking “Here passes the equator line, Equator town 1883, near the geographic equator 0.18°”. In other words, someone once thought the equator passed through there (probably H M Stanley); now with more sophisticated equipment we know that it is in fact a few kilometres away, but the sign remains. As does an official sat nearby, checking IDs and demanding money from any visitors. So – where else but in the Congo – you pay a corrupt official to allow you to take a photo of a graffitied sign marking a spot that isn’t actually on the equator at all…

The second ‘sight’ was in Lisala, the birthplace of former president Mobutu. The commemorative plaque in the main square gives not his original name (Joseph Désiré Mobutu) but the name he awarded himself: Mobutu Sese Seko Kuko Ngbendu Wa Za Banga. This apparently means something like ‘the all-powerful warrior who goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake’. I don’t know about the fire, but he certainly left in his wake a country depleted of all the assets left to them at independence (working electricity and water supplies, industries, etc). More interestingly, there was still the shell of a house of his in this town. Looted of anything of value when Mobutu fell (apart from the marble that rebels couldn’t remove), you could still see that the house would have been lovely in its day, with lots of open terraces and balconies and a wonderful setting on a hill overlooking the river. Now it is used as a makeshift school, but I hope one day someone can restore its grandeur and turn it into a hotel.

Finally, I had a bonus at the end of my trip, as the enforced delay in waiting for rearranged international flights gave me the opportunity to visit the bonobo sanctuary outside Kinshasa, which rescues and rehabilitates orphaned bonobos. Bonobos (sometimes known as pigmy chimps) are man’s closest relative. Watching one female breast-feeding and playing with her baby, the veins and wrinkles clearly visible on her hairless arms, only the face reminded you that she was not a human being. According to the information posted they are the only animals besides humans to kiss using their tongues, although I have to admit I didn't see any of them kissing. They are interesting animals though and I spent an enjoyable few hours at the sanctuary.

The babies are much hairier but very cute.
As you can see, apart from the great river itself, there are not actually that many tourist sights in the Congo. Tourists are extremely rare, and in most villages we visited the people did not understand what we meant when we said we were tourists. "Why have you come here?" To see the country. "Yes, but why? What do you want here? Have you come for our diamonds?" was not atypical. One day we wanted permission to walk around in the forest behind a village, so asked the chief's permission as is customary. As he could not comprehend the concept of tourism our guide ended up telling him that we were kind of ambassadors for our countries - that we wanted to see whether the Congo was now a safe place to invest in. We got permission for our walk, but were accompanied by a party of village elders (so no chance of my stopping to look at birds) and I felt quite guilty that they thought our visit might lead to some kind of investment.

Notwithstanding that local people didn't understand the purpose of our visit, and that they nearly all asked us for donations (food, money, clothes - or in one case a man asked me for my watch), they were friendly and welcoming. & they are truly poor. For those in paid employment, $360 a year is a typical salary (for example for a junior teacher or civil servant), whilst it costs $120 a year to send one child to school. So I suppose their asking these visitors in their nice clothes, with their cameras, and their generator on their obviously comfortable boat, for a handout of some kind is not unreasonable. Not that many of them even knew what a camera was.

Further into the heart of darkness

By midnight on 30 August I was supposed to be back home asleep in Dakar, but in fact I was sat on a blue plastic chair wedged into a wooden pirogue, motoring up the River Congo from Lisala to Bumba. We’d woken up on the Sunday to hear that our flight back to Kinshasa had been cancelled. I wasn’t too pleased as this meant missing my subsequent flights, Kinshasa-Nairobi and Nairobi-Dakar, but of course there was nothing at all I could do. There was no flight due the next day, either, but it seemed that there would be one on the Tuesday. We heard from the airline that there would be enough people for it to run, the director of Lisala airport confirmed it was on his flight plan, and the travel agency sold us tickets. So we contacted Kinshasa and confirmed amended dates for the international flights.

So on the Tuesday morning I packed up my stuff ready and went in to breakfast – only to be told that the airline had decided that morning to use the plane to fly somewhere else instead, somewhere with more waiting passengers so they could make more money.

But there was a solution. The next day there was a cargo flight due to go to Kinshasa from the town of Bumba, only 120km upriver from Lisala. So the guide negotiated the hire of another engine, we packed our stuff into the pirogue, and set off for Bumba (with the guide’s poor wife by now suffering from a bout of malaria). It was a long ride, and unnerving to travel in a pirogue in a dark, moonless night, but eventually at 1:30 the next morning we arrived in Bumba – cold, hungry and tired. Miraculously there were no officials in sight but it took over an hour to find a hotel in the dark, and we finally got to bed after 3am, hoping that this time the flight would materialise.

It did, and what an experience! An old Russian Antonov plane with Russian pilots, packed with assorted cargo: a 4WD car, a set of plastic chairs, sacks of maize and cassava, bunches of plantains, a frightened pig, a goat, and crates and baskets containing at least 100 very noisy grey parrots! Plus six passengers wedged between it all.

So we finally got back to Kinshasa, then spent a frustrating day in and out of airline company offices and internet cafés trying to rearrange our international flights. The day was livened up a little though by a peaceful march of people demanding more transparency in the registrations for November’s presidential election, followed by riot police firing tear gas (it is the opposition apparently wanting more transparency), stones thrown at the police and more tear gas. Several passers-by ran into the internet café to escape, with their eyes red and streaming from the tear gas, but inside we felt only a slight prickle for a moment or two, thankfully.

& finally, $320 down, I had rearranged flights to get me home from Kinshasa, with just enough time to go out for a beer and fried termites to celebrate.

Travelling through the Congo

It all started when Hewa Bora airlines crashed on landing in Kisangani in July, so were grounded by the authorities. Or was is when Filair crashed in Bandundu last year, the plane unbalanced when all the passengers rushed to the front supposedly to avoid a crocodile that had escaped from someone’s bag? Either way, the result was a shortage of domestic flights within the DRC, meaning that neither passenger nor cargo flights were now guaranteed to operate even when scheduled and confirmed.

So the spare engine for our boat the “Go Congo” was stuck in Kinshasa for lack of a cargo flight to get it to where it was needed, and we started our trip along the river with just the one 55hp engine.

It should have been enough. But on our third day we encountered a boat in trouble – a tug towing four barges packed with people and cargo was floating out of control in the middle of the river with its engine broken down. There was only limited help we could give as the boat was probably eight times our size, but left in the river like that it would have been at the mercy of the current until it eventually hit a sandbank, where it could have been stuck for months until the river levels rise during the rainy season. By this time many passengers would have run out of food and money and might even have died – that is the way things are in the Congo.

So we came up alongside and pushed them, slowly, to the riverbank. At least that way they could moor and people could get off to hunt meat or seek alternative means of getting somewhere.

But it was a good deed we came to regret as our own engine was damaged by the strain, and packed up completely the next afternoon. & we had no spare. Thankfully with our smaller boat it was not too difficult for some passing fishermen in their pirogues to tow us to the bank (for a fee, of course). But then what were we to do?

Well the first thing was to deal with the officials. So far we had encountered various officials (soldiers, marines, police, civil guards, immigration, customs, intelligence…) at every village we had pulled in to. They were drawn to us – a boat with three white people on it – like moths to a flame. Often drunk, their sole intent was to extort money out of us. Thankfully the guide, a Belgian who has lived in the Congo for 18 years, knew how to deal with them – when to crack jokes, when to shout and argue and when to get them a round of beers – and he always managed to get the payment down to a reasonable level.

We hadn’t been moored for long when some naval officers found us. These guys were not drunk, but it turned out they had been using gunpowder (removing it from their bullets and snorting it) to get high. So the Aussie and I quietly ignored them whilst the guide began the ‘negotiations’. They are not dangerous (so we were told) if you are white and reasonably confident, as they know we are more likely than the locals to make official complaints about any abuse, but it can still be a bit hair-raising to those of us not used to the situation.

By the evening there were seven armed officers roaming the boat, and at times the negotiations turned into a shouting match between them and the guide, but eventually he got them down from their initial $300 demand to a more reasonable $12 plus dinner, and all in return for their agreeing to guard our boat from bandits during the night.

Meanwhile negotiations with another visitor to the boat had got us the loan of a 15hp engine, enough for us to take our pirogue (attached to the back of our boat) to the nearby town of Mankanza where there was a good chance of being able to hire two 25hp engines to power the boat. Mankanza was some 3-4 hours away, they told us. So we set off around nine the next morning. Around 2pm it began raining so we took shelter in a village. How far was it to Mankanza, we asked? They all agreed that it was 40km away, but as estimates of when we might arrive ranged from 1pm (?) to 10pm, we pressed them further. Then it transpired that Mankanza was not 40km away from where we were, but 40km away from somewhere else. Of course. 40km from the village of Bolombo, which we might expect to arrive at by around 5pm.

Amazingly we did indeed arrive at 5pm, having negotiated en route in a village the loan of one 25hp engine. We set up our tents in the village and had some dinner (fish, cassava and greens) whilst the owner of the 15hp engine and one of our crew set off back to the boat with the 25hp engine – they were to catch us up in Mankanza the next day.

We had a nice stay in the village (despite all the rats in the toilet), and with a lift from a village pirogue, arrived in Mankanza the next day, around midday. Our boat didn’t arrive that day, however, nor the next day. One aspect of life in the Congo is the lack of any means of communication, with no mobile phone coverage and of course no internet (and indeed no electricity to power phones or computers in any case), so we could only sit and wait.

But on the third day they came. We were told that they had been held up because naval officers had stopped them on the way back to our boat, demanding money to buy twenty crates of beer (they knew they had come from our boat so assumed they must have money on them). When they did not get what they wanted they held a gun to our crew member’s head, forced him to crouch down and whipped him across his back. He was quite a timid character and our guide explained that this can happen to Congolese who do not stand up to the officials. Quite shocking that people should have to take such treatment!

We had managed to hire a second 25hp engine in Mankanza, so once another round of ‘negotiations’ was concluded with all concerned, we were on our way. It was now Wednesday afternoon and we still had 220km to do to get to our destination, Lisala, by Saturday evening as we were flying out of there back to Kinshasa on the Sunday.

It was nice to be back on the big boat again, with space to walk around, a toilet and bucket shower on the back, and a more reliable source of cold beer for my fellow traveller. It was also a good vantage point from which to observe the life of the local people, as they raced their pirogues up to our boat to try to sell us fresh fish/dried fish/bananas/beetle larvae/tree squirrels/dried monkeys/small crocodiles - or in one case a sitatunga (large antelope) they had just killed while out hunting with their dogs. We bought and ate their fish, bananas and even beetle larvae but refused the bushmeat as it is now illegal to eat it following pressure on the Congo to put an end to hunting of its wildlife (and I must say I saw no wildlife on this trip other than birds and squirrels).

Our progress, without the big engine, was slow, even though we slept on the boat to save the time of setting up camp in a village each night. Concerned about getting to Lisala in time for our flight we even kept going right through the night on the Friday, but we were still 120km away on Saturday morning so we transferred our luggage to the faster little pirogue and set off at speed – finally arriving around 8pm for a night in the Catholic Mission before our flight the next morning.

From Mombasa to Kinshasa

I spent a few days in Kenya visiting my Mum, taking her and her husband Chapati to dinner to celebrate her 70th birthday. Yes, 70th!! She doesn’t look it, doesn’t act it and says she doesn’t feel it. Maybe perpetual youth is one of the benefits that comes from being with a younger man…

They still seem as happy as ever together, and although the money is tight and Mum has had malaria now eight times, she would not be anywhere else.

Our few days together were quickly over though, and I flew on to Kinshasa, and from there to the town of Mbandaka a further 700km up the River Congo, for the start of a holiday in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was more excited than I’ve been about a holiday for a long time, as I have wanted to travel on this river for years. Originally I expected to take one of the public barges between Kinshasa and Kisangani, but given their irregularity and their propensity to break down or get stuck on sandbanks for weeks/months, it was something I was never able to arrange. Then I spotted this organised trip on a traditional-style Congolese longboat, ten days cruising between Mbandaka and Lisala (the middle third of the river between Kinshasa and Kisangani), camping in small villages and fishing camps on the banks each night, and decided this was the way to do it.

To my surprise there was only one other tourist on the trip, a laid-back Australian guy, and with us were the owner/guide, his wife the cook, his son and the crew. We settled in, ordered a beer and sat back to watch the life on the river.