This trip was undertaken in 1991 when the country was called Zaïre, the river was called the Zaïre River (and even the currency was the Zaïre). Today it is called the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) and the river has returned to its more familiar name of the Congo River. I have no idea whether this remarkable boat trip continues today. Even if it does, it would be difficult and dangerous for foreigners to travel through DR Congo as I did – a great tragedy indeed.
Nothing quite prepares you for one of the world’s great travel adventures – riding the Congo River Boat upstream from the capital, Kinshasa to Kisangani over a period of around two weeks. A seething mass of humanity boards – couples, families, luggage, market stalls, animals (including crocodiles, monkeys, pigs, goats, tortoises, chickens and more), radios / music machines, crafts and many things that defy description.
The river boat is a steamer lashed together with a number of barges. Even amongst the mayhem, travel comes in three classes – first class (deluxe with nice comfortable rooms), second class (rooms with four bunk beds) and third class which consists of space on the deck somewhere, all classes including two surprisingly nutritious and tasty meals each day.
The boat departs and the party begins. African rhythmic music blares from every music box and radio for 24 hours a day. The untiring passengers and their brightly colored clothing sway to the rhythmic beat for hours at a time while others tend to the important business of shopping at the informal markets setup by the more entrepreneurial folks. Seemingly everything is for sale – pots and pans, torches, clothing, food, batteries, strange carvings and more.
The late afternoon (evening) meal time is a form of organised bedlam with crowds of people like peak-hour in a Friday afternoon bar. On the menu are mounds of rice with a tasty stew or sauce based on one of the menagerie of animals boarded in Kinshasa. When the meat runs out, another is selected and slaughtered – at least you know the meat is fresh. Over the days, more traditional western meats like chicken and pork is mixed with goat, monkey and crocodile. After a couple of days, I stopped asking – somehow it seemed better that way.
Some peace can be found on the top deck – a flat area where you can watch the world go past or enjoy the dazzling evening sky unhindered by the typical city lights back home. In the river darkness, the Milky Way really does appear as a creamy heavenly highway. The music is a little more distant up here and the top deck appears accepted as a more tranquil area – a haven from the hurly-burly of river boat life. With a decent blanket, this is as good a place to sleep as any – the gentle speed of the river boat creating enough breeze to keep the insects at bay.
As time soaks by, we pass a number of river-side villages with their wooden and straw huts. For many villages it includes an energetic paddle on their pirogue (a wooden canoe) to tie up to the main boat for a session of trading their goods for other needs of the village. Others simply hitch a ride upstream. The bartering is vigorous but all seem to leave contented with a broad smile and a gentle handshake. Some on board seem solely to take the river boat to trade with the various villagers along this aqua highway. With the bartering complete, the pirogue unties and simply eases its way back downstream back to the village, carefully balancing their new goods in the small wooden craft, avoiding capsizes from the wash of the river boat. For many villages, it is their sole contact with the outside world with no road network at all and no other village within walking distance.
In the end it seems so disappointing to arrive at Kisangani as mayhem ensues with the disgorging of the many hundreds of passengers – the way of life on the river, the temporary friendships formed, the spirited bartering in the river boat markets, the energetic music and dancing, the menagerie of animals and the waves from the passing villages left a great two week escape for the visitors and a continuation of life for the locals – many undoubtedly bound for the return journey the following day.
Surely the vibrant spirit and color of the Congolese people, the Congo River and its river boat is one of the world’s great travel wonders. We can all only hope that DR Congo can one day return to a more peaceful and normal life and that this magnificent waterway can again be used for the benefit of all that live near her.