• Cattle Cargo: Mwanza-Muscat Part 14 December 30th, 2015

    The cows didn’t smell as bad as I thought; hardly at all in fact. This had been my initial worry when I realised I would be spending three days and four nights at sea with them.

    Cows on the sea

    Some of the 500 cattle

    There were 500 in total, crammed into a series of pens on three tiers of decking. There was also a fourth deck – the forecastle, at the bow of the boat, loaded with covered straw bales for the cows, and a quarterdeck of sorts at the stern, which is where I and the crew spent most of the time. This consisted of a bridge and two cabins, around which a covered wooden decking allowed movement from one side of the vessel to the other, and access to one of two long drop toilets either side of an enormous wooden rudder. More on that later.

    Bike firmly strapped on.

    A large wooden wheel manned in six-hour shifts by one of the four pilots dominated the bridge, to the right of which the engine controls, a compass and small GPS were fitted.

    Majid one of the Pilots

    Behind the bridge a bare-floored central cabin provided space for crew to sleep. This gave access to the aft-cabin – a cozy carpeted space that contained two berths, one for the captain and the other kindly offered to me. Attached to the captain’s cabin was also a small cubicle for a bucket shower. All in all simple, but fairly comfortable and sufficient quarters to pass time at sea I thought.

    Crew sleeping

    My berth on the boat

    The boat, the Shahe-Al-Sabir – so named after the owner’s son, measured 39m in length by 11m in breath and was built almost entirely of wood. Like the crew it was Indian in origin; both from a place called Salaya in Gujarat to be more precise.

    According to the captain around 100 similar vessels, known as vahans, ply the seas of the Gulf of Aden, mostly transporting livestock from the Horn of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, and foodstuffs on the return voyage. All those Somalian goats and sheep I’d seen weren’t being consumed by Somalilanders, but Arabs in Saudi Arabia, Oman and other gulf nations.

    On the third day another vahan carrying 5000 goats from the port of Bossaso in Puntland (another autonomous region of Somalia) came close by. The crew, like the crew on all vahans, were also Gujarati. As for the cows I was accompanying, well they had come from Ethiopia. This was a long journey to the slaughterhouse.

    Another Indian boat

    Other than the captain, Sabir, and the first engineer, Salim, none of the crew (15 in total) spoke English. They were all young guys in their twenties, not only coming from the same town in Gujarat, but from the same extended family.

    Captain Samir

    Crew member

    Gujarati crew

    Despite the barrier in communications I made the effort to learn everyone’s name and quickly felt welcomed onboard. Chai was frequently offered and meals were shared in typical Indian fashion.

    Sitting with some crew

    Meeting the crew.

    One goat and four chickens started the journey with us. Ayai, the First Cook, and his younger brother Riswan, the youngest crew member at 19, served these up in hot oily sauces with rice and chapattis during the voyage, cooking on the starboard side of the quarterdeck over a couple of simple covered gas hobs.

    Ayaj the first cook

    Preparing goat meat

    Communal dining

    The sea was relatively calm during the 660 nautical mile journey through the Gulf of Aden. The 1200CC 12-cylinder engine that Abid, one of the Engineers showed me, powered us along at a gentle 8-10 knots in speed. What little spray did come over the bow ended up giving the cows on the open section of the third deck a refreshing cool-off.

    The Engine room

    Crew member

    During the hotter months of the year on a crossing with little wind this would have been an uncomfortable journey for both crew and cargo. When there was a lull in the sea breeze during the second day the crew attached an awning for the cows out in the open, and blew air through the use of two large fans for cows on the lower decks. For most of the time a large sail channeled the sea breeze to cows on the lower decks.

    East to Oman

    The cows were silent most of the time, although mid-morning for one reason of a bovine nature seemed to be a time of increased activity within the pens, with many an attempt at procreation taking place. Considering how tightly packed the animals were this required much manoeuvring on the part of certain cows in order to hit the target so to speak.

    The bales of covered dry straw were fed to the cows once a day, just before sunset. As for water, despite the boat carrying 10,000 litres for them, which Salim said they would receive on the third day, the poor animals never got a drink. Naturally 500 cows urinating on an open wooden deck shortly before arriving in Salalah would have created quite a mess for the crew to clean up, which I assume is one of the reasons they didn’t get their drink.

    As far as I could tell when we did dock, all of the animals had survived, although I’m sure a number of kilos in their body mass would have been lost during the time at sea.

    Feeding time

    Feeding time

    As for my diet and digestive system, the daily diet of chapattis and apprehension of squatting 5 metres above the sea in open view only seemed to block me up, which reminded me of an episode of Micahel Palin’s 80 Days Around the World when he took a sea voyage to India.

    The long drop

    When not seeing to the cows, which didn’t take up that much time, the crew spent most of their day preparing and chewing betal nuts. This practice is to some Indians what qat is to Somalians. While eating was very much a communal affair, and the job tasks on board were shared, each crewmember appeared to have his own stash of betel nuts and chewing tobacco. The sound of betel nuts being crushed with a pair of pliars was a familiar one, both day and night, during the voyage. Once the nut was crushed into small pieces it would then be mixed with tobacco and a white powder I never identified, before being thrown into the mouth. This made conversation with the captain, who seemed to chew practically the whole day, somewhat challenging, unless he’d just leaned over the deck rail and spat the contents of his mouth – a reddish liquid, into the sea below.

    Betel nut preparation

    If not chewing or sleeping the crew would be watching videos on their phones. I never asked what salary any of them made, but almost everyone had a smartphone, although that’s not really a big deal these days. There seemed to be a happy harmony amongst them onboard.

    During June and July they told me they would be back in India with their family, leaving again in August with a cargo of rice for Somalia. This simple life didn’t seem like a bad one to me. Out at sea under the immensity of a cloudless sky in a vast expanse of blueness beneath, all of the World’s problems seemed far away.

    Several large navy ships came into view on the third day. I had by this stage asked the captain about pirate attacks in an area of the World renowned for them. Well that was the case several years ago. Of late there have been very few incidents of piracy in these waters, owing in large part I guess to international navy boats, such as those we saw, patrolling the seas. A boatload of cows and an Indian crew also didn’t seem like great booty. I had already imagined smearing myself in straw dung and hiding in one of the pens should we have been attacked.

    International Navy boat

    A forecast of stronger winds on the third day had the captain changing course slightly so that we steered closer to the Yemeni coast. When I first thought about this trip back in Tanzania, Yemen had been included, but with the current insecurity there was no way I was heading there – a shame as the towering mountains that rose out of the sea looked dramatic.

    Mountains of Yemen

    Sunrises and sunsets were special, although dinner always seemed to be served about 5 minutes before the latter. It was only me who paid any attention to what for everyone else was just another period of time in the day.

    Sunset over Gulf of Aden

    Shortly before sunset on the third day, some 10 miles or less off the Yemeni coast and just after the crew had fed the cattle for the final time and thrown the remaining straw overboard, we saw a pod of dolphins, perhaps 50 or more, playing in the sea close to the boat. This the crew did take more interest in. I had been told it was common to see dolphins and sometimes whales. It was a magical sight and I was partly sad the journey would be over the next day.

    When we did dock in Salalah the following morning I was in no particular rush to leave the boat. Small tins of blue paint were the first items to come aboard, almost immediately after we tied up. At first I thought this was for the crew to do some touch-up work on the boat’s paintwork, but they were soon amongst the cows marking the backs of all of them with a zero. This, I was soon told, was to identify the owner.

    Numbering cattle

    A crane arrived soon after and so began the process of unloading all 500 cows, a job that took most of the day. It was somewhat saddening to have spent several days with these animals, who must have been in discomfort, to watch them being taken away to a slaughterhouse rather than some open green pastures.

    Unloading cattle

    ‘Do you want to borrow my phone to call your people here’, asked the captain, who assumed I had friends in Salalah. Back in Berbera I had mentioned something about having friends in Salalah as an assurance that if there were a problem when I arrived I had contacts who would assist me. I knew no-one here.

    By the time I’d got my Omani visa and bought a sim card to connect my phone it was afternoon. Salalah was 15km away. No hotel was going to come at the prices I was familiar with in Africa, so I asked to sleep aboard another night. This wasn’t a problem, so I shared a final dinner with the crew and sent photos I’d taken of them during the journey to their phones.

    When I did leave the next morning it was time to pay the captain. Not once had he ever asked for money. Back in Berbera it had been me telling Maulid the agent that I would pay for the voyage. I’m sure the captain must have thought I would tip him, but it required some effort for him to accept the $100 bill that I pressed into his hand. For him, the crew, the shipping agents, immigration and so many other people, the fact that I was with a bicycle and choosing to take a passage at sea for 4 nights with 500 cows and 15 mostly non English speaking crew was surely because I couldn’t afford other means to travel.

    Saying goodbye to the Gujarati crew

    For me the experience and adventure had been priceless. I would have happily spent another day at sea, or longer with this crew. Now though it was time to explore a new country; one that I imagined to be very different to any in Africa – Oman.

    A map showing the course the boat took from Berbera-Salalah can be viewed at the bottom of this page.

  • Goodbye Africa: Mwanza-Muscat Part 13 December 15th, 2015

    At first it looked like finding a boat to leave Africa would be easy.

    ‘Inshallah this will not be a problem’, were Mohammed’s reassuring words as I found myself sat in a newly built air-conditioned office during my first morning in Berbera.

    ‘We are agents for Maersk. One of our ships will arrive here tomorrow. If the Captain agrees I see no problem for you to travel to Salalah in Oman when it goes back’.

    I liked his optimism. This sounded perfect, particularly when I enquired what it would cost me.

    ‘Oh don’t worry about that. As a Muslim I wish to help and shall see that you go free’.

    I went away from his office in high-spirits. What a weight off my mind. Now I could continue exploring what looked to be one of Africa’s most alluring places.

    Central Berbera

    Berbera’s importance as a seaport goes back many centuries before the British administered it as the capital of their protectorate in 1884. ‘The true key of the Red Sea’ and a ‘harbour coveted by many a foreign conqueror’, was how the explorer Richard Burton described it at a time of Ottoman influence. Arab, Persian, Asian and even Jewish communities all settled here at some time. The evidence of which remains to this day in a fascinating, display of crumbling decay.

    Old building in Berbera

    Berbera ruins

    Berbera ruins

    View over Berbera

    Were Somaliland internationally recognised I have little doubt that the old quarter of Berbera would be given UNESCO World Heritage status. Here is a time-warped treasure trove of colonial and pre-colonial buildings, most of which were abandoned when Civil War broke out.

    Fish warehouse Berbera

    Central Berbera

    What I first assumed was war-torn damage is in fact due mostly to the weather. It rarely rains here, but when it does heavy storms bring down roofs and old walls. The result is a sad sight. Many buildings are in a desperate need of preservation. The little construction I did see taking place is not to restore the historical fabric, but to build new again.

    In the summer months Berbera records temperatures of 45C plus. Now in December it’s at least 10C cooler, which is hot enough.

    Old Persian mosque in Berbera

    Mosque in Berbera

    Mohammed’s ship, the MV Souni, duly arrived as he said, but wasn’t expected to dock at the port until sometime later the next day. This seemed like a good opportunity to venture into the port itself, have a look around and hopefully meet the Polish Captain, whose name I had written down but couldn’t pronounce.

    Well that wasn’t going to happen. Berbera’s port security took an instant disliking to the idea, even if I was with Mohammed’s logistics officer and agreed to leave my camera with them at the gate.

    Mohammed arranged for the Captain to visit the shipping office the following morning, where I soon discovered I would not be on his ship leaving for Salalah later that day. The Captain was open, honest, even apologetic, explaining that for matters of insurance, safety etc etc, he wasn’t in a position to authorise it. Only if one of the ship’s 19 crew were not on board would there be a chance of getting a passage, and that would still require authorisation from the Greek owners.

    I probably could have been told this three days previously had I been able to communicate directly with the Captain, who said he had no real idea why he was meeting me until that morning. The search for a boat would have to begin again.

    My general upbeat mood changed now. I couldn’t relax. Before arriving in Berbera I imagined spending my last few days in Africa on the beach. There was endless white sand and crystal blue waters a few kilometres from the town, which I’d visited briefly when I first arrived, but I wasn’t going to find a boat out there. I realised I needed to find more contacts, be persistent and be taken seriously. This meant staying in the town, even if little happened between midday and 4pm when businesses more or less shut up shop.

    Beach in Berbera

    A cold beer or two would have helped ease the stress. Were there just a few simple outdoor drinking establishments for the non-believers in town Berbera would have been an infinitely better place to pass the time. Instead it was male-dominated tea-drinking and qat-chewing establishments all over again, broken up by calls to prayer in one of the many mosques. The closest Somaliland comes to serving alcohol is a pathetic non-alcoholic malt drink that calls itself Bavaria.

    Qat and chai

    Qat for sale

    Somaliland beer import

    English conversation was rarely hard to find. Some of Berbera’s older generation spoke fluent English or had returned from years overseas. Many remembered a time when their father or uncle worked for a British man. Like other countries in Africa with an anglophone history, it is the older generation who speak better English than the youth of today, where large class numbers and poorly trained teachers typify most government schools.

    Still, the kids here were mostly friendly and less of a nuisance than their Ethiopian neighbours, some of which had come this far to clean cars, polish shoes and beg.

    Berbera Boys

    Young girl in Berbera

    Woman and daughter Berbera
    Mother and daughter

    Berbera children

    Many men would call me over from the side of the road, curious to know why I had come to Berbera. Most were always high on qat, or on their way to becoming so. After exchanging a few pleasantries I would move on. Perhaps it was the heat or character of being a port town on the edge of Africa, but Berbera also seemed like a haven for madmen. There were many of them wandering the dusty streets between the litter and goats. Perhaps they were also hoping for a boat out.

    Colourful rubbish in Berbera

    Qat chewer

    Mad qat chewer

    My hotel room was about the only refuge in town – incongruously modern, clean and providing consistently good wifi for $10 a night. Sitting outside during the day meant dealing with armies of flies. Perhaps that’s why everyone ate their plates of spaghetti and rice so quickly. I don’t recall any other town in Africa so full of them.

    Local tea shop Berbera

    Young girl in Berbera

    There were also plenty of cats and goats, but they were less of a concern for my health. If Berbera was the first place you came to in Africa I’m sure your digestive system would take a battering.

    Berbera cat

    Berbera cats

    Berbera ruins

    Qat stall and goat

    Local restaurant Berbera

    As the days went by I built up a mini phone directory of numbers, telling each and every person I met on the street, the sane ones that I could judge at least, how I wanted to take a boat from Berbera. People were always positive, as they often are in Africa, but no-one could ever give me a direct answer. ‘Don’t worry you will find. Inshallah’. This wasn’t the answer I wanted.

    What I really needed was to meet someone influential. Someone who could cut through all the pleasant small talk and make things happen.

    Initially I thought this might be Hassan, an elderly Somalilander of that educated generation who didn’t seem to be addicted to qat. His friendly speaking English fluency and time overseas led me to believe he was a big shot in town. Surely with 4 wives and 22 children you have to be a big shot in Somaliland?


    Well if he was short on influence he more than made up for it with kindness, calling around and driving from one shipping agent to another.

    I knew there were boats that left Berbera for Oman. I was also happy to wait until my visa expired the next week if one person could say for sure ‘Yes you can take this boat’. After years living and travelling in Africa I should have known that nothing is ever certain on the continent until it happens.

    The alternative to leaving by boat would either be returning to Hargeisa and flying to Dubai, now that Berbera’s Airport is no longer in use, or over-landing/flying all the way back to Addis Ababa and flying from there to Oman. Neither would be simple, cheap or the adventure I had in mind. I couldn’t travel West to Djibouti as I had no visa and East lay Puntland, a no-go area.

    Berbera Airport Entrance

    In the end it proved to be more stressful and complicated than I could ever have imagined.

    Port security continued to deny me entrance to the port on three more occasions.

    They say you are a correspondent’ laughed Maulid, another young shipping agent who tentatively agreed to allow me to travel on a boat of his to Salalah. This was after I made it clear, on several occasions, that British citizens don’t require a visa before arrival in the country. He’d told me when I first walked into his office how a German, some years previously, had got on a boat in Berbera without an Omani visa. The boat was then held at the port in Salalah for many days while immigration authorities contacted his embassy and made problems for the captain of the boat. Idiot.

    I had been in Berbera a week now and still not been inside the port. The Port Manager or even the Mayor might have helped had either of them answered their phone.

    From the roof of the hotel I could see several half-sunken ships in the bay nearby. This would have made an excellent place for a sun-downer, although I doubt the other hotel guests thought so. 

    Berbera bay

    Berbera from my hotel roof-top

    When the Indian Captain of the boat Maulid was the agent for agreed and we shook hands one morning I breathed a sigh of relief. That was until I realised he didn’t have the final say. There was an agent in Salalah I needed authorisation from as well as the owner of the agency, Maulid’s boss, who was somewhere else in Somaliland. More nervous waiting ensued.

    ‘You will be on the boat tonight. Inshallah’. Maulid said as he instructed Hassan to take me to the immigration office after the Captain agreed. Here an exit stamp was issued and I was relieved of $30, which may or may not have been official procedure. I didn’t care. This sounded like progress. If my passport had an exit stamp from Berbera Port then surely I must be leaving from here.

    I returned to the hotel to pack up and buy some supplies for what I’d heard was a 3-4 day journey. The boat would leave that night when its cargo – 500 cows, were loaded.

    I checked out of the hotel and sat in the reception. I was still nervous and had a headache. Maulid called and said to visit his office.

    ‘My boss says you can go, but the bicycle must stay here’. This sounded ridiculous. When I asked why some nonsense about port rules in Salalah and the boss of the shipping company not wanting to be responsible for anything that wasn’t his cargo, was given to me.

    ‘Don’t worry you can leave the bike in Maulid’s office and they will send it on another boat to Oman. Or just buy one there’, suggested Hassan. It was clearly apparent that no one realised how important this bike was to me. Leaving it in Berbera on the premise that it would be sent at a later date just wasn’t an option. I wondered if Maulid and Hassan had hatched some plan to keep my bike for themselves.

    It was dark now and the boat would soon be leaving. I left Maulid and cycled down to the port with Hassan following in his car. Now that my passport had been stamped out of Somaliland and I had a port pass I finally made it inside.

    I wheeled the bike between various shipping containers and made my way to the dockside. A large wooden boat was moored alongside. ‘Shahe Al Sabir’ was written around the bow. This was my boat.

    I waved up at the Captain standing 3 metres above me on the deck. He’d seemed nervous when we met in the agent’s office that morning. Now on more familiar turf he smiled and waved, keeping a close eye on half a dozen cows that were flying through the sky 10 metres above me. The last of the 500 cows were being strapped together on the dock and soon to be craned into the open hold of the vessel.

    The reality was this boat was about to leave within the next hour and the Captain wasn’t going to allow me to take my bike unless he had authorisation to.

    My headache had intensified by this point. There was no way I was leaving the bike behind, but staying now that my passport had been stamped out and my visa soon to expire was going to be an equally big headache.

    Maulid arrived to give the boat final clearance to leave. This was the first time he had seen my bike. I pleaded and asked for the shipping owner’s number.

    ‘This bike and the bags on it are my life. It is impossible to leave it’ I shouted as Maulid checked all was ready for departure. It was becoming clear that the bike mattered.

    Telephone calls were made. The Indian crew looked down at the bike and me, confused I’m sure as to what was going on. I don’t recall ever being so stressed in all my time in Africa.

    A few anxious minutes passed and Maulid called me over. ‘He says you can take the bike’.

    I helped and watched the crew hoist it over the side with two ropes tied onto the frame, before speeding back to Maulid’s office in his pick-up, where I was asked to write something to the effect of clearing the agent of any responsibility for me.

    This was it. I was leaving Somaliland and Africa by boat.

  • Back on board: Up the Lualaba April 20th, 2011

    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.

    HB Safina

    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.

    Prime position

    Top deck

    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.

    Lualaba river bank

    Storm brewing

    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.

    With the Commander

    Crew at the bow

    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.

    Sunset on the Lualaba

    Pirogue at sunset

  • Upriver: A boat journey April 6th, 2011

    Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the World, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest.” (Joseph Conrad)

    Finding a boat to travel up the Congo River wasn’t easy. Firstly there weren’t many boats on what could and should be a major highway of traffic, and secondly those that did exist had no schedule for when they would depart. But waiting was worth it, for this was a journey like no other.

    The boat itself was essentially a tug, consisting of an engine room, a few small cabins and a rudimentary cockpit for navigation. Nothing spectacular, and had that been it the journey would only have been half as interesting. For it was the barges this tug (so named the MBKALIOPI) was pushing and the scenes upon them that made the vessel what it was: a floating market, a makeshift shanty town and home for hundreds of Congolese.


    The barges

    There were two barges being pushed by the tug. Each was approximately 10 metres wide and 50 metres long. They presented a picture of complete chaos as bodies occupied whatever space was available, seeking shade on the hot metal decks with all their baggage and other clutter under a patchwork quilt of tarpaulins. These flat-bottomed barges were merely boxes of sheet metal, the only fittings being the small bollards wrapped with thick steel cables that held the barges and the tug together. Many people had been on board for several weeks. That is how long it had taken the boat to reach Bumba, some 1400km upriver from where it had started in Kinshasa.

    I have no idea how many passengers were on board and neither did the crew. More than 300  at a guess. Then there were all the animals – a dozen or so pigs and goats, as well as countless chickens and ducks. There was no guard rail around the barge and it still seems a miracle that one of the many babies or young children didn’t crawl over the edge. I’m sure many have done on other similar barges in the past. Few would survive, particularly during the night.

    The other passengers

    For all these people to eat, sleep, clean and use the toilet in such a confined space presented a challenge, but life on the river was familiar to many. Most were travelling with the specific purpose of buying and selling goods along the way. This wasn’t their first journey. What was cheaper to purchase in or close to Kinshasa would be transported upriver to be sold for a profit, and what was cheaper in Kisangani where the boat terminated would be bought to transport downstream.

    Fish dominated the scene. Stacks of flat wicker-made baskets containing salted and smoked fish filled the barges. What a smell! I assumed they would be cheap on the understanding that the river contained plenty of fish, but as the boat approached Kisangani people came aboard and paid $15-20 for one of these racks, perhaps containing 20 fish. I personally think tinned sardines are a better deal for money – one gets 3 fish for less than $1.

    Salted fish

    Pole man and fish

    These scenes of commerce provided the most interesting aspect of the 8-day journey that was to take me 400km from Bumba to Kisangani, where I am now. For many people who live along the river bank the sight of an approaching barge provides an economic lifeline, for there are no roads to these villages. A barge presents the only opportunity, perhaps for a week or more, for them to buy and sell goods. And so out they paddle in dugout canoes to reach the barge, bringing their goods with them and precariously tying alongside. With them might be any number of things: fish, plantain, manioc, avocados, mangoes, pineapples, tomatoes, wicker-made chairs and tables, wooden pestle and mortars, jerry cans of palm oil or palm wine. And then there are the more curious things: monkeys, bats, crocodiles, tortoises, snakes, antelopes, huge grubs and snails. If it moves and has meat on it then it’s food. In some respects the sight of baby crocodiles, tortoises and monkeys being sold and slaughtered sickened me, but out here it is a means of survival. The people have always eaten what the forest provides and nothing is going to stop that.

    Women power

    Mother and child

    Pirogues tied alongside

    Bats in a bowl

    Palm grubs

    Baby crocodile

    Crocodile head

    Preparing dinner

    Pestle and Mortars

    Village crafts for sale

    Finding a comfortable place to occupy my time on the boat was almost impossible. The bicycle was safely stored below deck alongside sacks of ground nuts and coffee, but my panniers filled a space between two families transporting smoked fish. At first I had planned to rest and sleep here, but the smell, heat and lack of space meant I moved to the roof of the tug-boat for much of the time, returning every so often to be sociable and check my panniers were all intact. It was less likely for something to go missing on the way. Very little could be done in secret with so many people on board. It was on the roof of the tug-boat that Hiromu and I slept under the stars, except when the rain fell, which it did on two nights. Then we got wet, for there was no space under the tarpaulins.

    Coffee grinders

    Sleeping above the Congo

    Walking around the edge of the barges was something I did with great caution, and never at night. There would be charcoal stoves to side-step, babies being breast-fed and washed, fish being dried, animals defecating, spilt palm oil, wire cables waiting to trip you up – basically a health and safety inspector’s absolute nightmare.

    The barge scene

    Making friends on board was easy. The only trouble was that almost everyone wanted some kind of gift. If they didn’t demand it then I sensed the expectation for one. “Pasangani mbongo” (give me money) are two words a foreigner will hear often in the DRC. At least it makes a change from “Donnez moi l’argent”. If I opened a pannier to retrieve something eyes quickly descended on me. As much as I like the DRC and its people, it is perhaps the most demanding of African countries I’ve travelled in.

    Under the tarpaulin

    Hiding from the sun

    The people didn’t hold back in reminding me how much they were suffering. Well that was evident. The well-being of the passengers was not a priority for the boat and its crew. Their concern was the safe delivery of the cargo (cement, several vehicles and sacks of various other goods). I really felt that if someone had fallen over the side the boat would not have stopped. The risk was constantly there.

    The Commander didn’t speak to me much. At first I wondered if he regarded me as a nuisance as I clumsily walked around the boat with my camera, but I came to realise he was just someone whose attention was solely focused on the job. The crew numbered about 10, but he was the only one who really knew the river. His eyes were always on it and when a member of crew did something wrong he would suddenly lose his cool temperament and start shouting. This he would also do when there were too many dugouts tied alongside, effectively hitching a free ride upstream and slowing the speed of the barges. An order would then be given for several of the crew to take machetes and slash the twisted vines which acted as painters for the dugouts. Villagers might be in the process of selling something on board at this point. Some would plead with the crew and others would argue. Amongst this fracas of hollowed out tree-trunks bobbing up and down and banging against each other one or two would occasionally roll over. Then I would look back to see several bodies quickly disappearing from sight in the wash of the tug as they held onto the upturned dugout. Poor bastards I thought. They hadn’t finished their sale and they’d lost their produce in the river.

    It impressed me how passengers were able to remain so calm under the circumstances. Occasionally an argument would flair up and voices would be raised, but in general people accepted their plight and endured the hardship. At night the Commander prohibited the use of torches in case one of his crew at the front needed to flash a signal to slow down. And so the boat and all those hundreds of people moved in complete darkness, until dawn. When the night was too dark or we were traversing a particularly tricky part of the river the Commander would steer the boat towards the river bank and gently run it aground until the first signs of light in the sky. Surprisingly there were far fewer mosquitoes than I imagined. I think they found more meat on offer below the tarpaulins.


    When the night was clear the waning moon provided the only source of light, silhouetting the river bank and the edge of the jungle. Occasionally a torch-light would shine out – most probably a night fisherman in a dugout. Essentially what I was seeing was no different to what men like Stanley and Conrad had seen some 130 years ago, and other than the western clothes most of the villagers were wearing I don’t think their life has changed much at all.

    Village on the River bank

    Island village

    This wearing of second-hand western clothes in the DRC presents something of a cruel reminder of the haves and have nots in this World. Many second-hand clothes sent by charities to the DRC originated in America. Well the problem is that the waist and chest sizes of most of these clothes being sold are far too big for the sinewy torsos of many Congolese. It is not uncommon to see a man with a waist size of say 26” wearing trousers made for someone far larger. Acting as a belt will be a piece of string to bunch up the loose material.

    Despite being given the liberty to sit and sleep on the upper deck of the tug-boat (something the crew would have restricted most people from doing) I too endured my own share of suffering. Throughout the journey I had diarrhoea worse than I can ever remember. Squatting over the edge of the tug-boat amidst clouds of diesel fumes didn’t ease matters. After a few days the engineer gave me access to the crew’s toilet. It could have been any number of things that upset my stomach. After eating sardines and manioc on the first night I was soon invited to eat with a number of people.

    Travelling upstream meant moving very slowly. My GPS recorded the speed at around 4km/hr. What navigation equipment did exist on board wasn’t working. The captain had no chart and received information about the depth of the river from two men standing at the front of the barges with wooden poles. These they lowered into the river until they hit the bottom, after which they would yell out a number. As far as I could understand the draught of the boat was about 2.5m, but as the captain didn’t know exactly what load was on board I think this was very approximate. On a number of occasions the barge ran aground on sandbanks, which often meant several hours or more of reversing and even disconnecting the two barges to move them separately.

    I never tired of watching the river from the top deck of the tug boat. This offered the most commanding viewpoint, and when there was any wind it was also the coolest place to be. All that metal reflecting the sun’s heat made the conditions on those barges cruelly hot. The jungle remained constant, where it had not been cleared to make way for a village of huts, but the river changed its course, narrowing as we passed between large islands before widening again. Some of these islands continued for many kilometres. This was untouched Africa and it was a truly amazing spectacle.

    Pirogue on the Congo

    Sunrise on the Congo

    Signs of life beyond those mud-thatch dwellings slowly came into view as the boat approached the town of Kisangani. This is the furthest navigable point for a boat travelling from Kinshasa. For the next 100km a series of rapids prevent onward travel on the river. It was a shear contrast from the jungle to see large brick buildings lining the riverbank. Arabs and Europeans fought over and developed the town, and as elsewhere in the Congo I could sense even before setting foot that the place has seen much better days.

    Mission on the River bank

    As much as I was looking forward to stepping on terra firma after a week on that boat, I was also sad that the journey was about to end. For many people who’d started from Kinshasa this had meant 1 month on the river. Despite the hardships on board I was slightly envious that I had not travelled the whole way. For a brief moment I even thought of waiting for the boat to head downstream to Kinshasa. I don’t imagine I will ever take a boat journey quite like this again.

    I stayed on board once it docked. As expected their were frantic scenes as people scrambled to get off and others rushed to come aboard. “Watch your bags. There are thieves here” someone cautioned me. There were several other boats and barges moored alongside a muddy stench of a riverbank. To call it a port would be misleading.

    I had to take a second look when up above the moving masses of bodies on another boat I spotted a white face. The first tourist I’ve seen in months, and he was English. He said he’d been waiting in Kisangani 3 weeks for his boat to head downstream and had been sleeping aboard for 10 nights, having paid for a cabin (his boat was twice the size of the one I’d come on). And there I was thinking that a 5 day wait in Bumba was a long time! He had been told daily that his boat would be leaving the next day. I was impressed with his patience. He recommended a cheap hotel in the town and I told him he was about to take the trip of his life.

    The next morning after saying goodbye to familiar faces and the crew I lifted the bike out of the hold and wheeled it off. Kisangani awaited me, but I didn’t get very far. Within minutes of stepping ashore an immigration official seized my passport. It was going to be a long morning.

  • North of the Niger November 21st, 2010

    Crossing big rivers in boats with holes in never feels very reassuring. As the water seeps through the wooden hull and runs to the stern of the overloaded vessel you look for signs of alarm from your fellow passengers. There is none. They sit motionless whilst one boy frantically bails out bucketfuls of brown water from Africa’s third largest river.

    The first time I saw the Niger River was in Guinea, a short distance from its origin in the Fouta Djjalon mountains. Here the channel was less than 20 metres wide. Fast forward several thousand kilometres and now it was over 1km in breadth, a silent expanse of dormant energy making its way to troubled regions further south.

    All aboard

    Small roads had brought me to the town of Pategi, which sits on the southern bank of the Niger River and probably sees few visitors. It is on the road to nowhere important, although apparently hosts an annual regatta. I had been told there was a government-run ferry on the river, but like many state-controlled businesses it was not in operation. Unless I headed 100km upstream and took the bridge, a leaky motorised canoe was the only way to reach the northern shore.

    When we arrived at the other side some twenty minutes later the water-baler looked exhausted. ‘Good job‘, I felt like saying, or ‘you really tried’, as Nigerians like to exclaim. There was no road, so I followed the other passengers, many of which had loaded their motorbikes onto the canoe. A narrow track cut through lush green rice fields and there was not a sign of concrete in sight.

    Bike boys

    I was now in Niger state, Nigeria’s largest, which feels a long way from the Yoruba dominated south. Keeping track of changes in ethnicity and language in Nigeria is not easy. There are something like 400. What is obvious is the stronger Islamic influence as you head north; more mosques, more women in headscarves, and lots of goats and sheep at the roadside awaiting slaughter for the forthcoming Muslim holiday. Towns also seem more relaxed. Less of the aggressive calls for attention or the dizzying density of traffic. Savannah grasses start to replace the thick bush of the coastal belt and the temperature  climbs.

    Why was I heading north in Nigeria when I’m riding my bicycle to South Africa? Other than wanting to avoid the environs of Lagos and the busy coastal states, I needed to visit Abuja, which for those who don’t know (I didn’t until several months ago) is Nigeria’s capital. It’s also a capital city like no other I’ve visited in Africa.

    Zuma rock and road to Abuja