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.

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