23/9/89

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.

The Scene at Kisangani.

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.

Sheltering from the sun aboard the MB Lokole, Zaire River.
Sheltering from the sun aboard the MB Lokole, Zaire River.

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

An aerogram letter that I wrote to my brother while we were on the river.

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.

Me on the bridge of the MB Lokole.

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. 

Preparing fish, Zaire River.

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.

22/9/89

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.

Hair Braids, African Style. L-R: Linda, Chris, Robyn.

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.”

18/9/89

Porridge for breakfast then lazing round was very much how much of the morning was spent.

Linda and I left the hotel at about 10:30 and went to find the Post Office. We met Skip and Snake¹ there and after we had posted our mail we all went in search of the ice-cream parlour. We found it after ½ an hour and it was closed! So we had a drink at a nearby pub then walked back to the camp.

We spent the afternoon lazing around and in the evening, we negotiated the sale of a painting² for $US10 from a native salesman.

¹ Snake had been so named because he had been hallucinating one evening after smoking some particularly potent ganga and had seen a snake coming out of the truck!

² The painting was a river scene painted in enamel on a flour-bag.

17/9/89

DAY TWENTY-SEVEN We got up at 9:00 and had porridge for breakfast then I gave the chainsaw a clean and sharpen.

We sat in the bar for an hour and a half, then a guy called Phillipe arrived to measure us all up for shorts, shirts, trousers etc all to be made out of flour bags.

After lunch we set off with a guide to go and see Stanley Falls. We walked down to the river and all piled into two “pirogues” or dug-out canoes which took us across the swiftly-flowing water. We walked about ½ a mile up to the place where Stanley said the immortal words: “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”¹ The falls themselves are more of a big set of rapids upon which the natives have built a series of gantries to suspend huge cane traps in the rushing water to catch fish. There was a big crowd of natives there, fishing with nets and lines, washing clothes, or just sitting in the shade. There was a horde of kids running round asking us for things and saying “good-a-morning”, even though it was mid afternoon.

Fish traps at Stanley Falls (Photo: supplied)

We spent half an hour at the falls then walked back to the pirogues via the river-side village. The dug-outs took us back across the river and we walked back into town. We had a drink at a hotel while we were pestered by souvenir salesmen then walked back to the Olympia.

¹According to legend, when the explorer Henry Morten Stanley, who had been dispatched from England to find Dr David Livingstone, came across the missing doctor, these were his first words to him. In fact, the meeting took place on the shore of Lake Tanganika, not here at Stanley Falls.