by Shahnaz Sayed van Wyk,
The idea of going up the Congo River has been on our minds since we knew we were getting posted to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I must admit, when we got there and I took one look at these barges and the huts the people build on the logs coming down river, I opted out.
However, we then got transferred to the Republic of Congo and when a friend suggested the trip on a barge that had cabins, the idea grew on us. In the end the men could not make it; neither could quite a few other ladies, so it was only two of us who made the trip.
There are no fixed dates for the barge to arrive at the river port or to depart. When doing enquiries, you only get an approximate date for both. There is an unloading and a loading time to take into consideration while calculating the departure from the port in Brazzaville. It is thus essential to book cabins with the general manager of the barge company ahead to time and start making other arrangements whilst waiting to depart.
One has to bear in mind that these are old barges that have been neglected and over-used for a number of years. Amenities on board are Spartan at best and for the rest, you are on your own: no restaurants, no cooking facilities, no running water, very basic toilets and showers. We booked what they called the VIP cabins where there was one bunk, closet, desk, shelves and a toilet and shower. It offered the privacy we needed but we provided our own mosquito nets, bedding and drinking water. All other water had to be taken from the river at all times.
We also paid the trip for a cook who knew the workings of these barges. He did our bookings and went to the port regularly to enquire about departure dates. He was also responsible for all manner of cooking, cleaning and washing up that had to be done on the trip as well as negotiating prices of fish bought on the river and porters at the various ports.
Heavily loaded, we finally boarded on the Saturday at 9 in the morning. The port was teeming with people, vendors and goods. They were still loading the barge with goods when we got there but we decided to board anyway and see how we can make our living quarters comfortable enough for us. Despite what they said, the place was not clean. At least it was workable but only one cabin door had a handle. We solved that by agreeing who will be locked in and opened up every morning.
We tried to bring as much as we thought we would need: buckets, pots and pans, cutlery, plates and cups, insecticide, medical kit etc., just about what we would pack for a camping trip in the middle of nowhere. Luckily there was some sort of a bar on board and we got our supply of drinking water there when we ran short. It was when we were already on the way that we learned that we could buy fish and chicken from the cold rooms on board
The actual departure was a rather confused affair, where everyone was asked to a line up on the quay for a head count. As the only foreigners on board and those with the VIP cabins, we were counted first and we could go back to our deck chairs and watch the rest of the people board. It was a little after midday when the barge pulled off the quay side. Our cook and the rest of the boat started preparing lunch, lighting charcoal stoves, cutting vegetables and plantain bananas. There was not much preparation on our side, mainly the vegetables because I had already smoked and roasted a duck breast for that day.
Life on board is very interesting. It is mainly a trading vessel, one pusher tug with two barges; when they have to fetch cattle from the north, they tie in 4 barges. There are 25 members of crew and among the rest more than 50% are travelling to buy or sell as they go along. After the first night, many had already set up shop on deck, stalls the way you see them at the market here selling paraphernalia of interesting goods and wares. Next to the door of my cabin, every morning one of the rare man to set up a stall, sold liquor and ladies underwear!
Many were also travelling up north after spending Christmas and New year in town and going back to the place of work or where their spouses work. There were numerous children among them. Well-behaved children too. We were worried that they’d fall into the river but they were nicely staying with their mother, sister or auntie and played on the spot, rarely cried and enjoyed the cold wash they got on deck everyday at sundown.
Needless to say, sunsets on the Congo River are fabulous, all the colours depending on the weather. We also managed to get photos when there was a thunderstorm, there again, the contrast of colours is stunning.
My friend and travelling companion, Véronique, had a study to carry out while she was on board, so our days were quite busy. While she talked to people, I roamed around and chatted to the vendors for a bit, sat at the cabin reading or just watching the slow progress up the river and listening to the various conversations on deck. We had also planned for 5 breaks during the day: breakfast, mid-morning tea, lunch, mid afternoon tea, dinner. And so the days passed by. In the afternoon, we played cards or ‘Tangoes’ or just read or chatted.
There were a few events that changed the course of the days. Once a little girl was very sick and we had to stop by a village so she could see the infirmary there. Then thieves were found. These were actually stowaways who had boarded at some unknown moment and who used the night to carry out their nasty deeds. They were discovered but few of the stolen goods were found. At Mossaka they were handcuffed and taken away by the police there.
In Brazzaville the river is part of the décor but once you are on the river, you realise how gigantic it is and what a massive volume of water is flowing down every second and how poor both countries on each side still are.
In Mossaka Dr Emile helped us put up at the catholic mission. The abbot there was very helpful; he only had one room with one bed available. He found us another bed and a mattress for our cook and we stayed there for the humble sum of FCFA2500 (about $ 5). The doctor had to ask a lady from the local eatery to prepare us some food, which we ate rather early and then we went for a stroll through the town of Mossaka. It is fascinating to find out that this town cannot be reached by road and still got to the size it is today. The French had a post there, complete with administrative offices, health centre and recreation centre too.
Our boatman, Jean Bruno was a nice man but it was a bad idea to board a canoe with only one motor. Being a diver myself, I knew better but instead of questioning, I just took for granted that they knew what they were doing. Wrong impression! Because 5 hours into the Alima river trip we broke down and quite a few other canoes passed by and did NOT help nor assist us to the nearest fisherman’s camp. So we stayed under a tree for about 3 hours before another bigger canoe passed by and accepted to take us to Oyo. We reached there after 21h00, very sore and grubby but at least we got there. It has been known that people get stuck on that trip for up to 2 days!!
Panic had not set it because my friend had the satellite phone with her. For quite a while, both on the barge and the canoe trips, there is no cell phone network. After one evening in a dilapidated ‘auberge’ in Oyo and 4 hour car trip we were home in Brazzaville. There are other hotels in that town – it is the President’s home town after all, but we were too tired to look and it stank so much at the port, we wanted to get out of there as soon as possible.
It was a highly enlightening trip. I think it is the only way to really see this fabulous river in order to appreciate everything that has been written about it as well as the hope it could still bring should peace break out in this part of Africa.