DAY THIRTY-SEVEN Another stinking hot day. Craig has malaria and he joins Bronwyn on the list of casualties. Bronchiole spent last night in hospital on a quinine drip and was discharged this morning. Craig’s malaria has been stopped in its infancy so he only has to take tablets to combat it.
I busied myself after breakfast putting a new handle on the kettle then we passed the rest of the day in the shade.
DAY THIRTY-FIVE At 4:00 AM it started to rain! We hastily shifted camp into a shelter where some of the others were and as soon as we had laid our stuff out it cleared and the rain stopped. Typical!
Scotty, Mike, George, Clinton and Lee had arrived during the night and Mike has got malaria.¹ Apparently he got lockjaw yesterday and Lee & Clinton who are both nurses were all set to give him a tracheotomy when it had relaxed again!!
We spent the day lazing around in the bar and there were some big rain-showers at times. Some of us took advantage of the gallons of water running off the roof to have a shower and wash our hair.
After lunch Linda, Snake and I went for a walk up to the river frontage to see if the bank was open but it wasn’t. A huge squall of rain sent us scurrying back to the hotel where we frittered away the rest of the afternoon in an off-hand way.
¹Scotty and Mike, our drivers, had brought the truck down to Bomba by road. They had had a hellish journey on terrible roads. George, Clinton and Lee were hitch-hikers that they had picked up somewhere along the way.
DAY THIRTY-FOUR Dawn came on our third day on the river and found us well on our way downstream. Slowly, people began stirring and the women started the cooking fires to start the first meal of the day. Some natives came out from the shore in their dugouts with baskets of repulsive burnt and blackened fish.
The weather promised to be hotter than ever and even at 7:30 it was starting to become unpleasantly warm.
The captain took pity on us again gave us five fish, some potatoes and onions which we cooked up and ate for breakfast along with some left-over rice and bully beef.
As the heat came on, we retreated under the tarpaulins until 12:00 when Bomba came in sight and we were at the end of our journey. The boat docked and we said goodbye to the captain, packed up our gear and disembarked.
The sun was beating down on the try dusty streets of Bomba and we trudged up to the Dina Hotel where we found a luxuriously cold supply of beer and Coke. Unfortunately, there were no rooms and no running water so Peter, Chris and I spent a fruitless 2 ½ hours looking for something better in town but found only revolting dives.
We bought some bread for tea and negotiated with the barman to camp in the back yard for 4,000Z the lot of us.
Linda and I set up the mosquito net out in the open and Bron went to sleep under it as she is sick.
We found out the location of a well and Linda and I got a bucket-full of water and had a wash.
Bronwen, Linda and I all slept under the net with a million stars above us and the night air cool.
THIRTY-THREE Another resounding scraping and banging at 5:00 AM signaled our departure from the river-bank for our second day on the river.
I got up soon after first light and joined a group of natives on the bow watching the morning come to life on the river with the cool, fresh breeze blowing over us.
Linda and I had a wash with water lifted out of the river then we all breakfasted on a portion of rice mixed with Vegemite.
Around ten o’clock the boat pulled into a wharf at a village called Lotoku. Some of us walked up the hill to the local market which, despite the fact that it was Sunday, had quite a selection of fruit. We bought a bag of oranges for 850Z¹ and a bunch of bananas for 100Z. From the market we climbed further up the hill to a mission station where we found a bar selling cool beer and orange fizz.
It would have been nice to sit there in the cool shade of the bar all day but the boat was due to leave and in fact we met the captain half way down the hill on his way up to get us!
Once again we set sail on the great river and as the day wore on it got hotter and hotter and even though we were under our makeshift awnings, the heat was oppressive. But, as afternoon drew into evening, and the sun sank towards the jungle, a cool breeze came up and the heat went out of the sun.
We had a small meal of cucumber, bully beef, a boiled egg and some bread that the captain gave us. Later on, just after dark, we docked at a small village in a riverside clearing and the captain’s wife gave us a huge bowl of rice.
I caught an hour’s sleep guarding the gear while Linda, Bron and Chris played cards, then we followed a track up through the village to a small bar in someone’s backyard. We sat and drank cool Primus² and made conversation in French and broken English with some of the locals. They told us that Queen Elizabeth had visited the village in 1958 and that she owns palm oil plantations in the area.
Eventually, the supply of Primus ran out and we walked back to the boat.
¹The unit of currency in Zaire at that time was the Zaire. Introduced in 1967, the currency was used until 1997 when the currency was replaced by the Congolese Franc. The Zaire was a rubbish currency which inflation played havoc with. A Million Zaire note was in circulation when we were there!
²Primus beer is brewed in Zaire by the Bralima Brewery which is owned by Hineken. The brewery was set up in 1927 by the Belgains, who, let’s face it, know a bit about beer.
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.
DAY THIRTY-ONE Another slow day. Linda and I walked round to a little salon where Linda got her hair plaited African-style. The afternoon, as usual, was spent relaxing then in the evening we packed up everything and went down to the wharf where we boarded the MB LOKOLE, the motor barge that we are going to travel down the river to Bomba on.
We were assigned deck space on “top middle deck” which turned out to be about 30 square feet of steel deck amongst a mass of cargo and natives. With a hold full of dried fish, the smell of which is appalling, it is shaping up to be a memorable trip¹.
Not wanting to spend all night on board, most of us went to see the finals of the local version of “Wrestlemania”. Snake has a haircut similar to a guy called “Dingwi”² who is a champ wrestler so he was honoured with an invitation to be a “guest referee.”
Unfortunately, he had to referee a bout featuring a maniac called “Gorilla” who didn’t take kindly to having a Muzungu³ in the ring and chased him out! The fights were the usual ludacris matches with wrestlers called Voodoo, Hallelujah, etc.
The match finished at about 12:30 and we walked back down to the wharf and spent a reasonably comfortable night on the deck.
¹Some of these entries are in the present tense, written whilst sitting on the bow of that steel barge as it made its way down the Zaire River.
² Snake had gotten a haircut somewhere along the road which was shaved up the sides with a mushroom-like top. Wherever we went in Zaire, people would shout out “hey Dingwi” to him. It wasn’t until we were in Kisangani that we realised that they were referring to the wrestler who had an identical hairstyle!
³Muzungu is an African slang word for “white man.”