DAY THIRTY-TWO Activity started on board at 5:00 AM and after a couple of hours of frenzied shouting and running around, the three barges were connected side by side and we got under way.
A cool mist clung to the glassy water of the river and early morning fishermen were out in their pirogues paddling slowly through the fog on the calm water.
The boat pulled out into the main stream and the current took it in its grip. We were running at 10 or 12 miles per hour in no time. After about ¾ of an hour the boat pulled into a pier to take on fuel and we used the break to get off and wash and set up our tent flies as shelter from the sun which by now had burnt off the thin wreaths of mist and was beating down fiercely on the deck.
The day passed slowly and we all dozed or sat at various points around the deck as the boat cruised down the river, alternating from the left bank to the centre to the right bank and back again.¹
The lush green jungle ran down to the river’s edge and an endless kaleidoscope of life went on around us, the river the centre of it all. Dugout canoes came out to meet us to sell goods, and village after sleepy village rolled past, built in clearings at the water’s edge. I spent some time sitting on the bow of the middle barge with my camera in my hand and a cool breeze on my face watching the pageant of river life drift by. Strange green plants live in the river, drifting on air-filled pods, like kelp, they float slowly downstream, taking their nourishment and support from the river. A profusion of life must exist in the dim and murky depths beneath the sleek and glossy surface.
In true African style, a baby was born on the stern of the motor barge at 5:00 PM. A crowd of women calmly stood round watching and assisting with the birth and nothing seemed out of the ordinary at all except to our muzungu women who “oohed” and “aahed” and clucked over the mother and her little bundle when they reappeared and went back to whatever she was doing.
As evening fell we had a small meal of cold rice, cucumber and bread rolls then sat on the edge of the deck and watched a massive display of lightning out over the jungle. Huge forks crackled down out of the huge anvil of the thunder-cloud, the interior of which was spasmodically lit by the firey red flashes of unseen lightning.
The full darkness of night came down suddenly on the great river and we all retired to our cramped little spaces while around us the natives sang and talked and laughed. The boat carried on down the dark water until a suitable mooring spot was found and we pulled into the bank with a grinding crash and tied up for the night.
¹Despite the fact that the Zaire (Congo) River is one of the world’s largest rivers, it has many hidden sandbars and snags. The riverboat captains know these hazards and steer a winding course to avoid them.