“The sun sinks fast to the western horizon and gloomy is the twilight that now deepens and darkens.” (H.M Stanley)
It was worth the effort again. The waiting, the inevitable haggling for the fare, the discomfort, the heat, the mosquitoes, and even the hunger that would accompany my journey by boat further up the Congo River.
Beyond Ubundu, where the last set of rapids make it once more navigable again, the Congo River is referred to as the Lualaba, which is the greatest headstream of the mighty river. Over 2000km upstream from where it empties into the Atlantic it is still daunting in scale, a silent powerhouse of a river, which for those who think beyond and below its placid brown surface remains wonderfully mysterious and enchanting.
This time wood replaced metal and the vessel was far smaller than those barges which took me to Kisangani. The HB Safina looked like it had been put together by a couple of apprentice carpenters, but it floated nonetheless and had a quaint charm as I watched it being loaded with crates of Primus and coke at the port in Ubundu. At least I wouldn’t be stuck for something to drink if we ran aground on a sand bank I thought.
The cargo far outweighed the number of passengers. There were only ten of us, plus another ten crew. This fortunately meant more space to move, but the HB Safina was no more than 50ft in length and 10ft in breadth.
I spent most of my time sitting and sleeping on deck – a foam mattress laid over several dozen plus crates of coca cola proving to be very comfortable, at least when the sun, rain, or mosquitoes didn’t force me to seek somewhere covered.
At first my intention had been to jump ship half way along the 300km journey from Ubundu to Kindu, and as such I’d only paid for a passage as far as the small outpost of Lowa, where my map depicted a small track heading inland. But the river and everything about the journey won me over again. When we passed Lowa on the second day, which was merely a few shacks lining a muddy riverbank, I told the crew there was no need to stop. I would continue all the way to Kindu.
There was none of the frenetic scenes of river commerce this time round that had made the first trip so interesting. It was merely being out there on the river as the boat cut velvety smooth ripples through that coffee-coloured expanse of water that was enough.
The boat often kept close to the riverbank as we motored upstream at a steady 5-6km/hr. This mostly presented itself as an impenetrable wall of tangled greenery. Some people might have looked upon this and the journey as monotonous, for the river just seemed to go on and on, and the jungle was always there. But moving slowly past those overhanging branches, with the brush tops of palms and other exotic trees poking through the twisted and luscious cascade of hanging vines was somehow mesmerising. I could happily stare at the riverbank for hours, for every tree was different, and once in a while the leaves would part and out fly a bird of the forest. Black and white casqued hornbills, African grey parrots, kingfishers, harrier hawks, and all number of other different sized and coloured species. My Congo guidebook tells me the DRC has some 1139 recorded species of birds – the highest count for any single African country. In those four days on the river I probably saw several dozen species – a mere fraction, but it seemed a lot.
I had hopes that one of those submerged logs that broke the river surface would suddenly reveal a tail or a jaw, but it was not to be. Had we passed a crocodile I rather fear the captain would have cut the engines and done everything possible to capture it.
The crew told me I was unlikely to see a crocodile in the main channel and occasionally pointed to the tributaries we passed, which drained into the Lualaba. Some of these were still of a scale to make the Thames look like a little stream – the Lowa, Ulindi and the Elila for example. I regarded these in the same way that a mountaineer might do an unclimbed 6000 metre peak, and imagined what it would be like to ascend one of these tributaries in a dugout canoe. Adventure plus plus!
There were plenty of villages lining the riverbank again, and I wrote down the names of those we stopped at. Dumbadumba, Pene Riba, Katendi. They won’t exist on any map. Forgotten places, like most settlements in this huge country. Children would characteristically yell out ‘Mzungu‘ as the boat motored close by, for that is what I am and will be for the remainder of my time in Swahili speaking Africa. It’s rather frustrating that the word for black person, ‘Mtu Moieusi’, doesn’t roll off the tongue so easily quite yet.
As we passed women cleaning pots at the water’s edge and men sitting silently under the shade of a tree I kept asking myself the same question I’ve done so many times in Africa – how do people survive out here? The only visible sign of a profit-making activity was that of palm oil production. Middle-aged looking wooden presses existed in a number of villages beside the river. Here several people would walk in a circular motion to squeeze oil out of red palm kernels. The oil would be collected, filtered and emptied into yellow jerry cans to be later transported in dug out canoes and sold at the nearest market.
The crew and passengers were a good-spirited bunch, although I never felt fully at ease with the Commander. He was effectively the big man, working for the society that chartered the boat and responsible for the safe delivery of merchandise being transported. When I first agreed with him on the fare to travel to Lowa ($15), he did his utmost to solicit extra money by demanding I pay so much for every kilo of my luggage. Well I refused of course. There was plenty of useless clutter on board and an extra 50kg was hardly making a difference. The matter was dropped and brought up again when I explained my wish to continue all the way to Kindu. Really this chap had no interest whatsoever in the river, the villages we passed nor the workings of the boat. His mind was solely on profit, and the only time he seemed to be happy was right after he’d eaten.
Well perhaps I should have paid extra. Whenever the crew made food the Commander saw that I ate with him. The fair wasn’t very exciting: fufu (now known as Ugali) provided the stomach-filler, along with smoked fish and perhaps beans or plantain. This act of inclusion and sharing says so much about the true heart of Congolese people, and Africans in general for that matter. Once you get beyond the petty demands for money and gifts that go with being a white face on the continent, the majority of people are far more generous than you might give them credit for at first. No-one was going to let me eat tinned sardines and manioc alone unless I protested that this is what I wanted.
When I wasn’t watching the river or practicing Swahili with the passengers I was often reading. For an entire year I’ve been carrying two volumes of short stories by Somerset Maugham. I read them first when I lived in Japan. In his tales of colonial life he writes about a time before air travel. Well out on the river as we occasionally passed the crumbling remnants of a red-brick Belgian outpost it was easy to imagine what life might have been like when journeys and news took weeks and months to arrive.
Like the previous boat the crew possessed absolutely zero navigation equipment. A combination of skill displayed by the Captain and the fact that the river was perhaps naturally deeper meant we never ran aground. I tried to explain what the readings of latitude and longitude from my GPS meant, but the crew were merely interested to know how many kilometres we’d travelled since Ubundu and what our speed was.
The mood on board became notably livelier when a mobile telecommunications mast came into view in the distance, rising high above the forest canopy. The crew soon had their phones by their ears and even the Commander seemed to hold a smile for more than a brief moment. It signified that Kindu and the end of the journey was close.
For me the end had come all too soon again. Beyond Kindu the Lualaba continues for another 500km or so, before it rises up to its origins in the Katanga Plateau. There is no regular boat travel, although it would be possible to continue further by dug-out canoe. Now I’m turning my attention east, where another large body of water awaits me.
For those following my progress on a map, I’m headed south east from here to Kasongo, and then east towards the western shores of Lake Tanganyika. I’ve been unable to update the google map of my journey over recent months due to such terrible Internet speed.
The plan is to cross into Rwanda at either Bukavu or Goma. If anyone reading this has contacts/friends in either of those towns who wouldn’t mind putting me up for a night or two (and anywhere in Rwanda for that matter) I’d be welcome to hear from you.