Miles on the clock: 38,290
Archie and I sat on a hillside wasteland by the town of Sandoa and shared an almost-cold Simba beer. The river Lulua lay before us; only 40m wide and invitingly placid. The dying light of dusk reflected silver on this winding swathe of water that lumbered in the valley bottom. This was the river we'd spotted on a map, half a year earlier when tipsy in Cape Town, and vaguely vowed to descend by pirogue (the traditional, flat-bottomed dugout canoe, ubiquitous across Congo). The mosquitos rose and we retreated to the Salvatorian Catholic mission where we were renting a couple of guest rooms. We'd found our river, now we needed to find our pirogue.
"You will drown."
"You will be eaten. The crocodiles will get you."
"The hippos will get you."
"The rapids will kill you. There are many, and too big."
"You will be drowned and then eaten."
"C'est impassable; c'est impossible"
We asked if any of the men had ever actually been anywhere on the river and they became less vocal. Somewhat mollified,we took this as an excuse to take a large pinch of salt with their dire prophecies. According to our research (which was limited due to the paucity of information available), the upper Lulua is unnavigable due to several sets of rapids. To our knowledge, nobody had tried to descend it before.
There was one pirogue landed on a mudbank beside the bridge which we took a quick look at. It was about 5.5m long, 60cm at its widest and 40cm at its deepest. Apart from its obviously respectable age, a couple of roughly repaired holes, a mildly eyebrow-raising crack and a yet-to-be-repaired hole, it seemed serviceable. However, it wasn't the one for us for two reasons:
-when dealing with something you have no knowledge of, never buy the first one you see.
-we had a plan to buy two smaller pirogues and fix them together in a catamaran-esque structure for more stability in turbulent water.
We pedalled across the bridge and followed a raised dirt track across a marshland until making a slight climb to the village of Mbako. When always the centre of attention it's easy to let it be known what you're after and soon a man led us down a foot path to a small cluster of huts. Chairs were fetched and we sat down with a bald, jumpy man who declared himself chief. We subsequently realised that he may have been chief of that particular small cluster of huts, but that he certainly was not village chief. Congolese village structure is almost farcically hierarchical and there is a series of petty chiefs who defer to the village chief who defers to the district chief. The district chief defers to the region chief and, often, also to the local tribal king or queen (usually a forlorn relic clinging to a previous age). All of this is unofficial and exists in uncomfortable parallel with the countless levels of government-appointed officials also in place.
'Bald-and-jumpy' stared at us quizzically for a while. He wore a fake leather jacket with the outline of Tutankhamun's sarcophagus stitched on the back. His mannerisms bore the constant face-scratching, nose-brushing, eye-darting and sentence-stammering of a drug addict with an itch. He was also very drunk. Eventually we said that the pirogues must surely be at the river and shouldn't we perhaps go there? The single-file, footpath procession down to the river included about 50 jostling kids.
We returned to the mission via Sandoa's small market to buy potatoes and avocados for our dinner. With daily visits, we soon became a regular evening fixture in the market. Children, and even giggling old women, would follow us through the neck-high maze of stalls and chant our names.
Day 2: We arrived at Christophe's home as arranged but he was out. An old man took us down to the river (again with attendant flock of children) and Christophe soon arrived but hung back sheepishly, not looking us in the eyes. The old man proudly presented the two-holed old pirogue that we'd been in the day before. We'd explicitly said that this wasn't fit for our purpose and Christophe had obviously taken no initiative. We suspected he'd spent the money we gave him on drink. Wasted opportunities.
Disappointed, we cycled 8km further to the village of Sakanono. Here we met a local teacher called Moliere who took us and five teenage boys a couple of kilometres down a footpath and, calf-deep, across a bog. We arrived at three pirogues, all of similar size, shape and good condition. They were exactly what we had in mind for our catamaran. If we could buy any two of them then we'd be all set.
Back in the village we met Monsieur Msweka who owned the first pirogue. A sulky, charisma-vacuum of a character, Msweka wouldn't meet our eyes and mumbled something about $150. We knew the approximate true price to be $50 and said this. He looked at his feet and retorted that maybe he would sell it after three days for $70 so he could go fishing to earn money in the meantime. We didn't want to wait three days and wondered why he wasn't fishing now if it was such a definite income.
The second owner was Monsieur Mbaza who we warmed to immediately. He sat us down on bamboo chairs in front of his palm-shaded hut and explained that he did not want to sell his pirogue. He explained his plans and how he reckons he can make $150 on a good day's fishing. This, of course, begged the question why he didn't fish more often and why he lived in such basic conditions.
The third pirogue belonged to Mbaza's brother who was in nearby Angola but back "maybe tomorrow" and would "maybe" be keen to sell. We gave Moliere some cash for his help and, exasperated, cycled back to Sandoa.
Msweka was out and his wife seemed angry with us. Mbaza was still resistant, even to $100, despite saying he'd sell it for $80 if it wasn't for his "plans". We couldn't help but notice that, once again, he was not fishing to fulfil his money-making plans. He was kind though, and seemed genuinely keen to help us, so led us by bicycle down 10km of footpaths and through a couple of desolate-looking villages with only elderly inhabitants. We then abandoned bikes and walked barefoot through dense jungle with swamp underfoot. In a tight clearing was a nearly finished pirogue with the rest of the tree lying, felled and discarded, at either end of the raw-coloured wooden canoe. The owner's son (who we had collected in a village) said it had taken a week so far and would be ready in two days. We could have it for $35.
Sadly it was the wrong size so we returned to Sakanono. Mbaza's brother was still absent so I asked if he had a phone and suggested I call him. The absent man's son produced a phone and read a number off it. I tried calling it but their was no signal at the other end. I wrote a simple text in French saying I was interested in his pirogue and could he please call me ASAP. Mbaza and his nephew read the message and both approved. I sent it. A few minutes later the boy's phone beeped into life. It had received my message. The man had gone away for a week or more but left his phone at home. My companions had sat under a palm tree with me and watched quietly as I sent a message they had already read to a phone a meter from me.
We stopped once again at Msweka's house on our way back. His wife grudgingly switched on a phone and read us his number off it. She switched it off and I tried to call the number. No signal. It didn't take long to figure out that the number was for the usually-switched-off phone in her hands. The mobile telecommunications revolution is yet to penetrate rural Congo as it has the rest if Africa.
Back at the bridge a man was waiting for us. Crispin asked if we were interested in the nearby pirogue we'd looked at the other day; the first one. Now prepared to abandon our catamaran scheme through sheer exasperation, we haggled him down from an absurd $400 to $150. He was not the owner but obviously keen to act as an intermediary...for a fee, of course. We took Crispin's number and arranged to meet the following morning at the bridge.
Day 5: Once more, no sign of Crispin and his phone switched off again. After an hour I left Archie at the bridge and cycled back to Sakanono. Msweka, as usual, was out and I learned that he'd been hauled into the police station for outstanding debts. Maybe selling would have been a wise choice for him. Mbaza's brother had still not returned but we went to see yet another pirogue, freshly completed this time, sat on the forest floor. It was far too small and the owner outrageously demanded $350 so I didn't waste my time further.
Back at the bridge, non-Francophone Archie was in a state of confusion. Crispin had arrived (several hours late) and so had two prospective sellers, both without their pirogues. They both claimed their canoes were similar size and condition to the one Crispin was flogging. Patrick wanted $125 and Gaspar was after $180. I told them to return early in the morning with their boats.
We asked Crispin when the owner of the first pirogue would be back from fishing. He seemed surprised and said he'd been back since yesterday and lived just close at hand. Then why wasn't he here then? We were led to a hut on the outskirts of Sandoa and met Mungenu. After sitting and exchanging pleasantries for an appropriate length of time, we began negotiating. Mungenu seemed sorely tempted by $150 but Crispin, seeking a helper's fee from both sides, nudged him to resist. He asked for $160 and we said he had a deal if he adequately fixed the hole first thing in the morning and included two paddles. We shook hands and paid him half upfront.
We returned to the mission that evening bearing a week of food supplies and broad grins: two proud boat owners.
We bored holes in the sides of the boat and attached a couple of wooden cross beams. To the ends of these we attached four empty 20L water containers as buoyancy/stability aids and were satisfied with the result. They should hopefully keep us upright when running rapids.
Day 7: Carrying all gear and supplies to the river by bike was a wobbly task but we arrived and quickly patched the hole with a two dollar tube of 'epoxy steel resin' bought in the market. We then nailed a plate of scrap plastic over the hole on the underside to protect it. The spectators pressed closer as we tentatively loaded up the 'Lady Lulua' for the first time: bikes stacked at the front, bags all under the bikes but for one to act as the front paddler's seat. She floated. We took a hurried photo, waved to the bemused crowd and cast off in our 40-year-old, hollowed-out tree trunk.
We had almost no idea of what lay ahead, where the rapids were, how fast/far we could travel, whether there were indeed crocodiles and hippos or not, and if we would survive. The onlookers waving from the bridge seemed sure we wouldn't.
You may have noticed that some of the better photos in this blog are credited to A. Leeming. For more, please visit www.archieleeming.com
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