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.