Descending the Congo

He wanted to be the first Westerner in 100 years to descend the length of the Congo. But he didn't count on the storms and the mosquitoes -- and the cannibals.

Topics: Africa, Travel,

like a chiming valedictory from a world we were leaving behind, the bells of Kisangani’s cathedral came pealing out to us through the predawn darkness as we slipped away from the bank, the bow of our pirogue cutting a pale gray V in the indigo river. Sweat ran into my eyes, soaked through my shirt and blanched into expanding blotches on the thighs of my cotton trousers. The bells rang out a sixth time. Their peals lingered and died, leaving us with the swish of our paddles, with our bow silently parting the mists over the Congo’s black currents.

Joseph Conrad called the Congo River “an immense snake uncoiled,” but I found its outline on the map of Zaire more closely resembled an unfurled claw. Rapid-free from Kisangani, in the heart of the African continent, to Kinshasa, near the Atlantic, and flowing through some of the densest equatorial jungle on earth, the Congo is less a river than a crescent swath of rain forest cut and slashed by currents pouring in from dozens of tributaries. It is a labyrinth stretching 12 miles wide in places and composed of hundreds of islands.

A desire to confront and vanquish something primal impelled me to attempt to be perhaps the first Westerner since the British explorer Henry Stanley to successfully descend its entire navigable length — 1,084 miles — in a dugout canoe, or pirogue. Stanley, who launched his historic expedition from Zanzibar in 1876 (reaching the river at Nyangwe, above Kisangani, and proceeding downstream from there), lost over half his hundreds-strong African crew and all three of his European companions to disease, starvation and skirmishes with cannibals by the time he sailed into the Atlantic from the Congo’s lower reaches. I searched for evidence that someone had completed the Kisangani-Kinshasa descent since then, but could find none. Apparently, all who had tried had failed. Violent storms had capsized a few, malaria had struck down some, others had disappeared without a trace. In 1989, two Belgians were hacked to death and eaten by the Engombe tribe in a stretch of river near Ile Sumba that Zairians called the abattoir (slaughterhouse).

Whatever the risks were, I resolved to surmount them and be the first to succeed.

Screeches in the night



I arrived in Kisangani, on the upper Congo, from Moscow, where I had worked the previous three years. Though I loved Russia, the bureaucracy and the seven-month winters of slush and gray skies got to me; I found myself craving an escape into hot climes. Beneath this craving lingered the realization that I had reached a crossroads in my life: a career or money or marriage would not be enough for me; I needed to prove myself to myself. When I flew to Central Africa, I left behind an incredulous Russian girlfriend, Tat’yana. My friends and parents in the States were convinced I was making a foolish, even fatal, mistake.

Once in Zaire I hired a guide, a lanky 28-year-old named Desi from the Lokele river tribe, and bought a pirogue. Together we turned the 30-foot wooden craft into a floating cornucopia outfitted for survival in extremis. Besides staple foods, we had a charcoal stove, pots, tents, machetes, jerrycans of drinking water, a first-aid kit and malaria medicine, maps and a gun. I carried a laissez-passer from a Zairian general, the purpose of which was to obviate problems with President Mobutu’s unruly military, known for its propensity to pillage and harass rather than for its martial prowess. I spoke French, Zaire’s former colonial tongue, and had learned the basics of Lingala, the Bantu dialect in use on the river. By our estimation, our descent would take 45 days. We had supplies for two months.

Le bon Dieu will decide our fate. We will face the Congo alone. If He wills us to die on this trip, we will die,” said Desi after a prayer uttered sotto voce on the bank. He grew up in a pirogue and never dared approach the water with anything less than the respect due a jealous god; rather, he was wont to make obeisance, afraid of the hubris resolution implied. Until the last day in my Kisangani hotel, I had had no such fear. Perhaps I should have. The night before departure I lay awake in sudden apprehension. I suffered the overwhelming presentiment that I was about to come up against forces of nature against which my motivations, obsessions or even meticulous planning meant nothing.

Because Desi and I judged the risk high that we might be followed out of Kisangani on the river and robbed, we decided to tell people that our departure date was several days later than it actually was and then leave town under cover of darkness. Desi had arranged for a taxi driver to show up at the hotel at 4 in the morning. We loaded up the trunk and drove down to a deserted clearing on the river below the cathedral. After this, Desi stole upstream along the bank and detached our pirogue from its mooring on the dock, then paddled down to the bank where I was. Thus our journey began; we simply disappeared from Kisangani — where we had been the object of much curiosity the previous week.

When we departed, the air was thick with humidity and hard to breath. The mist felt like steam. In silence we paddled down the glassy river under a sky paling with the approach of dawn. From the jungle emanated gurgles and caws, yowls and screams, every sound echoed in the steamy air with the exaggerated acoustic amplitude of tiled shower and bathroom. A hiccuping monkey a half-mile away sounded like a growling gorilla at our backs.

Later that morning I paused to rest, glancing sternward to see how Desi was coming with his tea. I recoiled. Behind him the sky roiled with advancing black clouds dragging iron-gray skirts of rain. Desi looked over his shoulder, then went back to his teapot. “That’s not coming our way,” he said.

Seconds later we were paddling for our lives against gusts that sought to blow us out into mid-river. A surf had risen. We got within 40 feet of shore when the rain hit us. “Jump out!” shouted Desi. “Jump!”

We quit the craft in a bound as the storm descended. I had the bow rope in hand and it jerked my elbow socket as I plunged into the churning brown water, but when I regained my footing I found it was only sternum deep. I strained to keep my eyes open in the horizontal rain. Desi pushed from the stern and I dragged, the current and slick clay alluvium keeping our footing tenuous in the shallows. Within 10 minutes we were in a cove, struggling to lash our blue U.N.-issue canopy over our provisions, which were scantily covered but still dry in plastic sacks. We then sat shivering under umbrellas, watching the river boil white and the sky rage black.

By afternoon the skies cleared. When evening came we had covered 30 miles. We found a glade on an island, dragged the pirogue ashore and set up camp. My head was heavy, my clothes were damp, my shoes were clogs of clay. In my tent, I covered myself with a sheet and dropped into a deep sleep, as if drugged. Drums from villages hidden in the forest were beating all around us. We were not alone. There was no moon.

On the river after 11 in the morning the searing ball of the sun drove us under umbrellas. Huge trees loomed in statuary repose on the banks, bees roared by in black swarms, flies lent an audible drone to the heat. At 4 in the afternoon we looked for a clearing in which to camp; hippos, snags and mosquitoes precluded travel after dark. The sun fell promptly at 6. From sunset on, swarms of mosquitoes made it impossible to stay outside. I sat in my tent and listened to the BBC and the Voice of Russia. By his kerosene lantern Desi studied his only book, the “Code du Travail du Zaire,” poring aloud over interminable clauses and sub-clauses, scrutinizing the codicils and whys and wherefores of the labor code of a country where the government had effectively ceased to exist a decade ago, where, with Mobutu’s pillaging of every resource, the law of the jungle had drifted back into force. (Desi could never explain why this book fascinated him so.) With all the crashing of animals through the jungle foliage, nights were never restful, at least for me. Were it not for the fatigue engendered by the fierce routine of paddling (plus the mumbling lullaby of Desi’s legal perorations), I doubt I could have slept.

One evening we camped in a clearing strewn with fetishes that Desi warned were designed to keep away intruders. “It is not safe here. But we must camp now. There will be rain tonight.”

At midnight I sat up in my tent, suddenly uneasy. The mosquitoes droned away outside, the air clung to my face like damp gauze. I was sweating in the close heat. Thunder rumbled, lightning danced over the treetops. Something — a lemur? — screeched from the forest, as if in alarm. Grunts followed, then a crashing in the bush. I listened for a while, then went back to sleep.

A couple of hours later a cannonade of thunder exploded above us. White lightning fissured the black sky; the river flashed a horrid negative of itself in the violent light. A prolonged, brilliant blast directly overhead ended with the descent of a tree bough through the corner of our tarp. Rain poured in through my netted flaps. Desi bounded awake, I shot from my tent, we reattached the tarp. A bolt of lightning had struck a tree beside us. Once inside my tent again, I discovered that my bedding had become a pool of water. As I looked at it I felt pricks of pain on my calves; I had left the netting open and my tent rang with mosquitoes. I swatted at my legs and withdrew a bloody palm.

When we passed villages, some people waved, others stared dumbfounded at the sight of the white man in a pirogue, but children ran away screaming. Desi explained: “The children hear how the Belgians used to eat little boys, they believe every mondele [white] is on an evil mission. The mondele comes to Zaire to take our riches and to kill.” The legacy of colonial exploitation the Belgians left behind was a terrible one, still alive decades after independence.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -

Robbers and cannibals

About a week after departure, Desi began complaining of gut pains
and faiblesse and drifted bleary-eyed into spells of apathy. The very
aspect of the river turned menacing, with the surrounding forest now a dark
and snarled wall of vegetation rising hundreds of feet into the sky
straight from the banks.

A day past the town of Bumba, some 240 miles from
Kisangani, the sky closed in on us, iron-gray, the palm fronds blew
backwards, the water frilled with white. A storm was coming. A barge
passed by; we ran roughshod and lurching through its wake. But two
pirogues hitherto unseen came about from behind it and shot toward us.
The pilots — two men in each — were in rags, but muscular, paddling in unison,
pitching and rolling with the wake. They sidled up to us, one port and one
starboard.

“Mboté! Mboté!” Greetings in Lingala were exchanged all around,
but smiles were not, and no handshakes followed. “Problem eza te!” said
Desi (No problem). I heard “mondelé” over and over again, “pesa ngai” (give
me), “mbongo” (money) and “koliya” (food). One of the men began rifling
through our provisions. The others held our pirogue firmly to theirs. We
were being robbed.

Desi reached under his bag and drew out the shotgun,
expressionlessly waving its barrel back and forth across the four brigands.
We bobbed on the waves; we drifted. They abandoned our sacks,
straightened up and smiled. Desi smiled, too. I smiled. The brigands
began half-bowing, rapidly uttering a supplicatory Lingala. Engombe was
mentioned over and over, as well as “matata” (evil). The encounter ended
with them giving us several smoked catfish. We parted, and paddled off
toward lowering skies. I was shaken and nonplused, but very admiring of
Desi’s cool.

“They wanted to rob us,” Desi said. “When they saw the gun, they
apologized, offering the fish to make amends. They warned me we are now in
Engombe land, that they, Engombes, are vicious and matata robbers, and
proud of it. They told us to avoid showing ourselves to the villages
ahead. No one enters Engombe land who is not an Engombe. We will have
problems.”

The river on which fishermen had hitherto paddled by us at least
four or five times a day now flowed ominously empty. That evening we hid
our pirogue in dense bush, camouflaged our tents with tree branches and
abstained from lighting our lanterns or playing the radio. We spoke in
whispers — when the rare voice or two carried across the river we held our
breath, and Desi tried to discern what was being said. No one passed
directly by us, though. Our newfound solitude had a sinister feel.

Desi slept with the machete by his head. I dozed off with my hand
on the gun, awakening with a lurch to the usual crashings of animals, which
now sounded like approaching Engombe murderers. Fear began to weary me;
the zeal for adventure that had propelled me out of Moscow into Zaire began
to wane.

The next day we saw no one until we floated by a cove hidden by a
finger of land covered with trees. There, two youths bearing machetes came
rushing out of the forest and leapt into their pirogue. A powerful surge
of adrenaline coursed through me and I plunged my paddle deep into
the muddy water. As the pirogue overcame us, Desi raised his shotgun and
trained it on the youths.

“Ah, you and the mondele have a gun!” one shouted to us in French.
“You win! We would have robbed and killed you both!” They dropped back,
laughing, and returned to their cove.

Later we came upon a pirogue filled with men from Lokutu, Desi’s
village. They paddled alongside us, regaling Desi with tales of massacres
that had taken place in the abattoir that stretched ahead to the town of Mbandaka on the
equator. To pass through the abattoir we would have to hire a soldier for
protection in Lisala, the town a day away.

Soldiers, stoned on bangi grass and belligerent, set upon us when
we drew up to Lisala’s beach, and were it not for my laissez-passer from
the general, I’m sure they would have robbed us or worse. I addressed
myself directly to the army base commander, who recruited candidates for
our expedition. One, Amisi, was genial and just over 5 feet tall — maybe
not the fiercest-looking guardian, but he seemed trustworthy, unlike the
others I had interviewed. He held high his .72-caliber FAL automatic
rifle — a Belgian version of the M-16. I hired him to accompany us to
Mbandaka.

C’est difficile, from Lisala to Mbandaka,” a Zairian colonel told
me. Engombes had killed and eaten both foreigners and Zairians alike
there, he said. In the past, Engombe tribesmen would sneak up on barges
and, using gaffs, drag people sleeping on deck into the water, drown them,
then paddle away into the blackness with their mangled human booty, to be
smoked and consumed later.

A few days after departing Lisala, our luck slipped out of kilter
once and for all. As the heat intensified (we were approaching the
equator), Desi’s faiblesse developed into a fever, and he stopped eating.
We should have been midway to Mbandaka, but the islands, once distinct and
few, were now numerous, each the same riotous outgrowth of trees and vines
as the one before, and we strayed from the navigation route. Though Desi
said he knew the river, he did not know it this far from home. As a result, we got
lost. The risk arose that we would drift down a river lane ending in swamp
and be unable to extract the pirogue from it — and this hundreds of miles
from anywhere. We would then become prey for anyone — or anything — in the
jungle.

I began to understand that with or without Amisi, I was running up
against obstacles that might prove insuperable, at least with such a small
crew, but there was no turning back: The river flowed in one direction and
the only way out was downstream. At night I found myself drifting in dream
back to Tat’yana in Moscow, even back to my childhood in the U.S. Sleep
became sweeter than ever. I longed for its escape. It provided respite from
the fear that lay like a stone on my heart all day. I could not let it
show, however. I was afraid that if I appeared vulnerable, Desi and Amisi
might mutiny rather than risk further travel with me down this dangerous
river.

But Desi’s condition worsened by the hour, and it transpired that
he was, in any case, too weak for revolt. On our third lost day, he
plaintively asked me to take some photos of him with my Polaroid for his
wife, clearly implying that they were to be remembrances of him. I
agreed, and on an island we held a bizarre final photo session, with Desi
donning his best sweats and looking solemnly into my lens. But if he were
to die, how would Amisi and I make it out? More than 100 miles were
left to Mbandaka, and we needed Desi’s skill as a piroguist to cover them.

As we pushed away from the bank, I thought about dying, about how,
out there, there would be no closing ceremony to my life, just a cessation,
as though it were a movie interrupted in the middle by the flare-up of a
faulty projector bulb. Death seemed tangible and near. I felt distraught
most of all because it might overtake me far away from Tat’yana, my
parents and my friends. I was afraid, but there was nothing to do except
paddle and drift, with the forest a wall of monster trees and vines
endlessly renewing itself, ceaselessly looming above us and passing by,
indifferent to anything I feared, felt or thought. If we ceased to be, it
would subsume us and continue being, ever silent and impassive, an eternal,
if unfathomable, life force apart.

Toward noon the next day, the sky threatened another tempest. We
erected our umbrellas and took to drifting close to shore. It began to
drizzle, but there was no wind, so we kept on. That evening, during a lull
in the rain, we passed through a shower of butterflies, a limitless
confetti of yellow. But they were set against a vista of thunderclouds
churning to the east.
“That storm won’t come this way,” said Desi, prostrate under his
umbrella.

The wind soon set the river aboil; the gusts and waves nearly
knocked us off our feet. Amisi grabbed his oar and did his best to help me
pilot the pirogue. We reached the bank but it was a wall of thorns and
spiked ferns and we became entangled in it. We had to relinquish one
mooring spot, then another, tearing our skin on the very bush we sought to
approach. Desi raised himself to steer. A crocodile crashed into the
river as we drew near the bank again. Another snag prevented us from
landing. A wave nearly pitched us overboard.

“We are in danger,” Desi stated in a monotone.

Having seen the crocodile enter the water but having lost him from
view, I felt totally exposed, vulnerable to ambush. Winds buffeted us past
another clearing and I, at the bow, had to jump into the shallows to drag
the pirogue by the tow chain up to the bank, an ordeal during which I
slipped in the clay muck and banged my shin on a snag, all the while
racing my eyes over the water in search of the croc. With the rain washing
over us in undulant silver sheets, we threw up our tarp, then crawled
underneath to wait out the storm.

The moon hung a giant pale orange orb that night, the forest echoed
with hoots from monkeys, with the great splashings of hippos in the
shallows somewhere behind us.

“May God’s will be done. I place my fate in the hands of le bon
Dieu,” said Desi, and he crawled into his mosquito net pale and weak. Amisi
sulked. I called him over to talk. “Desi is sick,” I said. “We have to
decide what we will do if he cannot continue.”

“We should just keep on. I’m a soldier and a Christian. If God
wills me to die here, I die. I can do nothing about it. Je n’y peux
rien.”

For two more days we drifted. Desi lay in the stern of the
pirogue, resigned, lifting himself up occasionally to retch into the river,
though he and Amisi took to raising their guns as a matter of course
whenever we approached a village. The next afternoon we landed squarely in
the Engombe heartland, passing village after village, unable to find a
hidden spot to camp. Darkness finally drove us ashore and we erected the
tents as the mosquitoes descended. Pirogues paddled up, unseen in the
humid night: “Is the mondele in there? What can the mondele give us!” came
shouts in Lingala from the shadows over the water.

Amisi answered: “Mboté!
Stay away. I have an FAL rifle and I’ll shoot.” It worked, but none of us
closed an eye.

The moon was silvering the river; a luminous glow emanated from the
water. I lay on my stomach, peering out of my tent’s net door. Two
pirogues bearing five people each materialized in the mists and moved
toward us. I tried to warn Amisi but I found my throat paralyzed. I couldn’t
speak or move a muscle. The piroguists pulled up to our camp and
unsheathed huge machetes that glinted in the moonlight. I struggled to cry
out but felt asphyxiated, immobile. As they stepped up to my tent, I lunged
into my net — and woke up. I had been dreaming. On the river there were
glints of silver — reflections of the moon — but no machetes or pirogues.
Desi and Amisi had drifted off to sleep in their mosquito nets next to
mine.

Dawn broke and we decamped. We saw no one all day — until 2 in
the afternoon.

“Mondelé! What are you doing here?” shouted a man in French from a
village of thatched straw huts. Mothers gathered their children and ran
into the forest to hide from me. Desi looked up. An exchange began in
Lingala. The man became agitated, shouting and thumping his chest. He was
the village chief, he said. We were trespassing. The shouts and angry
queries multiplied, the people on the bank grew more and more hostile.

Toward evening, an Engombe tribesman, puzzled by the sight of me,
told us that the riverboat Colonel Ebeya would be passing by “La
Gare — just across the river.” It was making its first run in four years,
and was the only steamer operating on the river. Luck or le bon Dieu?
Replacing Desi with a tribesman from the Engombe was not an option, and given his health,
continuing would have meant risking his life and therefore ours. I had
only one choice: to call off the expedition. With renewed hope, we paddled
on in search of this “station.” When the sun had set in a blaze of red and
purple, the mosquitoes flew forth in roaring swarms, enveloping us in an
impenetrable cloud, clogging nostrils, ears, mouths. We spit them out, we
paddled, we swatted. Overhead the Milky Way stretched a glittering astral
sea across the black vault of the sky, but not a village was to be seen.
Soon, we were lost again.

Around midnight a pale gray blob in the gloom drifted near — a pair
of monster pirogues loaded with stacks of smoked meat — and their captain
directed us toward La Gare. This time, we found it — a sandy clearing by a
village. We moored and commenced waiting. Desi was ashen and hunched over
with cramps, sweating with fever. I looked out into the blackness, hoping
to catch sight of the Ebeya’s spotlight playing on the sky above the river.

The next noon, on our 21st day, around 500 miles
from Kisangani, with almost 600 left to Kinshasa, the riverboat
finally appeared. I paid a couple of La Gare villagers to paddle us out to
it as it passed.

Three weeks on the river drew to a close with the fastening of our
tow chain around the Colonel Ebeya’s steel deck railing. Hands reached out
and pulled us aboard. Undelivered, dispirited by the denouement that
turned me into another defeated challenger of the Congo, I could answer no
questions. I could barely return the smiles. A crowd enveloped us, hustled
us away from the river up to the first mate’s office.

Desi recovered with rest and medicinal powders we bought from
savant merchants on deck. As the days passed I was left alone with the
ache of failure, with an unquenched monomania that only intensified as I
watched the jungle drift by my cabin window, day after day after day, as
beckoning as it was threatening, as intriguing as it was, even to me,
terrifying. Yet as soon as the relief of our rescue wore off, I found
myself longing — to try the river again.

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His seventh book, "Topless Jihadis -- Inside Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group," is out now as an Atlantic ebook. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.

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